February 4, 2019

Carpenters Revisited: A Fresh Look at A Song For You

When I began this "Revisited / Fresh Look" series on the albums of Karen and Richard Carpenter, my intention was to write about the impact of the duo's music on my life while doing an honest reassessment of their catalogue. While the previous three reviews seemed to roll off my keyboard to some degree, this one was different.

I started writing this review and reflection back in February 2018, almost one year ago, shortly after my review of the Tan album was published. Yes, it really has taken me that long. This was not entirely due to my busyness, laziness, or forgetfulness. Truth be told, this album flatly demanded my full attention to do it justice and doing so drew too much emotion from me at this point in my life. With age comes introspection, and hopefully, wisdom.

Writing this piece did increase my love for this disc, moving it up even closer to the top of my favorite Carpenters albums. Many of my insightful friends at the A&M Corner consider this disc the highlight of the Karen and Richard's career. Perhaps they are right.  
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A little respect. That's all Karen and Richard must have wanted, and to some degree, they earned much of it with the release of their 4th album- coming just one year and a month after their previous one reached the public. A Song for You would become an instant fan favorite as it was filled with one hit after another. 

Carpenters were everywhere to be found on AM Radio and high atop the sales charts with a grueling concert schedule that brought a chance for Karen and Richard to prove their musicianship. But as the short but lovely Tan album showed, sometimes it was to the detriment of the recording side of their career and later their emotional and physical health. Aside from a brief break in 1974, the duo released one album every year for almost their entire first decade. That's much more than being prolific. It's a pace impossible to maintain even under the best of conditions.

The clever ad for the new single.

Following a string of five Top Ten hits, just a few days before Christmas Day 1971, the first single from a brand new album was sent to radio. I quickly found it in my favorite local record store almost as quickly as by now retailers knew they were turning out hit after hit. 

Middle school boys like me weren't supposed to love Karen Carpenter, but I really didn't care all that much. Sure, I really liked pop radio and the very wide variety of artists you could hear back then. Everyone from the classic groups of Motown to the Rolling Stones to Cat Stevens to the 5th Dimension were on the airwaves. In comparison to all of them, there was just something about Karen. It was indescribable, but ultimately, I just couldn't get enough of that voice. Thankfully, I never had to wait too long for something new back then, and I was not disappointed by the new single.

What a great time to be a Carpenters fan!

Hurting Each Other was (and still is) such a powerful song. The combination of the delicacy in Karen's phrasing on the stanzas and then her power later in the chorus created a contrast that made this both distinct and different enough but still very similar in sonic and emotional impact to "Superstar". I played it over and over on my turntable. Just like the singles that came before, I was certain this new record had "smash hit" written all over it. 

Richard's quiet piano and string infused arrangement punctuated by the percussion and kettle drum line brought out every bit of drama to be found. His work was uncluttered and clean but complex in its exacting thoughtfulness. Those soaring background vocals were spot on, only serving to further showcase the majesty of her once in a century voice. It's an often overlooked piece of brilliant work. 

After this much time in the spotlight, Karen was instantly recognizable from her first note, especially when she brought out the lowest parts of her range. It seemed she was singing from the depths of her soul as well, winning each listener as if she were singing just for them. Intimacy, vulnerability, and warmth personified. An honesty and sincerity flowed out as she practiced her craft, and the public loved her. Innocence and yearning matched with insight and hopelessness. It all came through. 

Not only were they constantly on the radio, it seemed they were always on television as well. Each public appearance, every television conversation with their hosts, seemed to expose Karen's humility and surprise in being so successful, making her all the more endearing. She was the girl next door that made it big. There was absolutely no one like Karen, and Richard fully understood how to bring out the best in his sister.

The song rightly zoomed up to the top of charts. Karen and Richard had successfully and fully reimagined the old Ruby and the Romantics tune into one that would now be known as theirs. Here was the pattern: If it wasn't a new song, Richard would revisit it so he could hear its potential and bring it to life. Critics could say what they wanted about their image, but the public recognized incredible talent when they heard it. Recognizing talent in Karen was easy. Her voice was forefront in every record. It would take years for the public at large to understand Richard's unmistakable genius putting it all together behind the scenes. 

The Billboard ad. A bit of bragging, but it was true.

It was almost May- which seemed like a lifetime given their pattern- when the next single arrived. Once more, radio picked up on the new release quickly given the success of Hurting Each Other, so it wasn't too long until I heard it on Los Angeles' 93KHJ.  

Carole King was a very hot commodity. Her landmark Tapestry album and its massive selling 45s had kept the two previous Carpenters records from hitting the top of the singles chart. What's more, James Taylor had taken her You've Got A Friend and turned it into a much loved Number One classic. (One of my favorites as well.)

The singer-songwriter's newest album Carole King: Music included her composition It's Going to Take Some Time. In interviews, Richard made a point of saying they were immediately taken with it upon first listen. Deciding it was just right for Karen and the perfect follow up single if not a guaranteed hit, they recorded it and A&M shipped it out. Very solid outing but not a big hit for the hotter than hot Carpenters. Not this time.

Nice sleeve for the new single.

Following my usual pattern, I found the little disc, ran home, and closed the door to my room, placing it on the turntable. For the first time ever after hearing them, I remember thinking, "That was nice." Not great and not memorable but a pleasant song done as well as it possibly could be. 

Apparently, I was not alone in my assessment. The record barely remained on the charts by the time the album finally arrived in stores. It was just not on par with the duo's string of hits. Karen sounded great as to be expected, but even with the distinctive flute solo and consumate backing vocals, it just was not Top Ten material. Nor did it break that number on the charts. This was a strong album cut and better than singles by other artists at the time but definitely not the chart buster everyone expected. Landing outside the mark had to do this time. Was it just too soft? Had they gone full on MOR (Middle of the Road) as their critics accused?

                           
Photographer Bill Hennigar captures one of my favorite photo sessions of the duo.

Growing up in Southern California, it was pretty much a tradition that a Summer release Carpenters album would coincide with the end of the school year. Maybe not intentional, but it gave me one more reason to be happy school was out. In 1972, Licorice Pizza records was not yet within my reach as I didn't have my driver's license. I was at the mercy of my folks or finding my own transportation. This year, a quick short ride on my bike to the little shop around the corner was all I had to find what I wanted. In retrospect, it was a very small family owned business. You can only imagine my surprise to discover the behemoth Tower Records years later on Beach Blvd., right down the road from Knott's Berry Farm

The other nice piece about a summer release was that it was close to my birthday. I could always rely on my wonderful grandmothers to bless me with the newest Carpenters album or a book of Disneyland Tickets. (One never drove a car, and one stopped when she moved to California.) They were like my guardian angels so to speak and looked out for me in more ways than I will ever share. 

So, the album was in hand. I was not a fan of the cover, but I sure enjoyed seeing that now familiar, classy logo! Perhaps it's my thought that the front of the new album looked like a lazy redo of  the one prior (albeit with a new color scheme). This made me think the new record would sound much like the Tan album as well. I was in for a big shock. 

The Billboard magazine ad.

In many ways, A Song for You was the most ambitious and diverse Carpenters collection to date, and many fans consider it to be their most well crafted album. Richard's own words would support this claim: 

"Arguably our finest album, and not just because of the many strong songs; but the arrangements, vocal work, diversity of tunes and the presentation. After being pressed for time while making “Carpenters”, I made sure enough time was set aside for its successor."

There's something very different about the title song compared to previous recordings. A Song for You is an instant classic, an old school saloon song for a new generation. Going back to the same hot artist/writer as that of Superstar, Mr. Leon Russell, Karen lives this lyric as if she's been on the road for decades. 

The recording starts plainly, just her voice - but much higher than expected- with Richard on piano, before it slowly builds into something incredible. Instantly fresh but unforgettable. Iconic. It's as if they're announcing to the world, "We are here to stay!" 

Much of the credit for this goes to Richard for his brilliant arrangement, particularly the instrumental break and how it added instant atmosphere to an already strong tune. Bob Messenger's saxophone solo is electric. When you add in the background vocal chorus, the song is an absolute masterpiece in four minutes. Truth be told, his solo is as majestic as the ending of Goodbye to Love and its iconic Tony Peluso guitar. Deserving more respect and recognition than it gets, this recording remains undeniably theirs 45+ years later. In selecting material for Karen, it seemed Richard's instincts told him she was a singer for all time, and he proceeded accordingly to great result. Many reality show vocal contestants will sing Donny Hathaway's version of this song, but they never touch the Carpenters' rendition for good reason.  

Was A Song for You a performance or a confession?

Admittedly, as a kid, I didn't truly appreciate this piece for what it was. Now, much older, wiser, and having seen my share of life, I hear it much differently. By this point in their career, Karen and Richard were in high demand with a schedule that would be impossible for just about anyone to keep. The signs of the toll it was taking on them were there. We fans just couldn't see it, or we didn't want to. But looking back, it's all there in Karen's very raw vocals. 

The trappings of success had already become prison walls among a life lived in the public eye. Whereas their third album read almost like a secret where lovers stayed up all night talking, on this selection, Karen sadly confesses the intimacies and failures of her relationship, begging her beloved for a fresh new start. Painful life lessons learned the hard way. Blinded by their obvious prejudices and agendas, critics who thought she expressed no genuine emotion clearly missed the mark. 

Since February 4, 1983, I've never heard A Song for You the same way.

The billboard ad.
Karen and Richard weren't just big.
They were BIG.
Photographer unknown.

It would be easy to only think of the next song on the disc as the one that almost got away, but there's more to the story. In truth, Top of the World was the record that must have made Karen and Richard finally realize just how successful they were all over the world. In its original incarnation, the Richard Carpenter / John Bettis composition is a nice, gentle, catchy pop country sing-a-long album cut. Their later rerecording of this song unearthed a worldwide smash that no one seemed to be able to resist. I immediately loved the tune back then in its original version, and the newer one as well. I still do, and so do six of my favorite Friends.

The lighthearted playfulness of Top of the World makes the very dramatic beginning of Hurting Each Other even more powerful. Even after hearing the first single for six months at that point in time, it still had the ability to make me really listen to it. How many artists have that power? The tune ends in such a way that the Carole King song plays to its best effect. This is just another point to show that Richard saw each album as a collection of songs meant to be together. Various compilations that pick different tunes from several albums will never have the same impact as when the songs are heard in the order he intended. 


A landmark recording!

"I'll say Goodbye to Love. No one ever cared if I should live or die."  Karen and Richard had already tackled their fare share of melancholy ballads, but this record took loneliness and depression to a new level. A new artistic level. 

The first ever single release by the Carpenter / Bettis songwriting duo arrived with instant impact. To select it was a very brave choice on the part of the duo as well as the label executives. True creative genius involves risk. Richard plunged in, creating their magnum opus, and A&M stood behind them. 

The lyrics were stark. Blunt. Direct and to the point, just this side of hopeless. Karen's delivery was exacting and resolute, also revealing how difficult a song this was to sing. (Try it.) The dramatic backing vocals mixed dirge, hymn, and anthem into one. A mesmerizing record from the very first listen. Coming immediately after the relatively frothy Carole King tune both as a single and sequentially on the new album, this one was not easily forgotten. Up the charts it went.

Richard's remarkable, God-given talent was fully on display for all to see. Pianist, Arranger, Composer, Conductor indeed. His triumphant arrangement and production upped their game, finally bringing he and Karen a measure of respect in the world of Rock, even if a bit reluctantly. This was not a song you hummed while it played in the background driving Pacific Coast Highway. He nearly demanded you listen.

In spite of its impeccable craftsmanship, Goodbye to Love also shocked, angered, and eventually delighted loyal fans due in no small part to its breathtaking guitar masterwork by Tony Peluso. The question of the duo going soft was answered. Not only was the recording a tour de force, it birthed a brand new genre: The Power Ballad. As many journalists have noted in recent years, Pop and Rock artists have been following Richard's lead in this ever since. They just wouldn't admit it.

In hindsight, A Song for You was their last album to have that fresh burst of energy found in the earlier releases, nostalgia based remakes and their Passage album notwithstanding. You can feel the creativity and ambition. Much like that later collection of unexpected musical choices, Goodbye to Love was riveting, and it challenged all I presumed the duo to be. I was among the shocked camp, but I also sided with the ones who loved it. Even if you didn't like the Carpenters, there was no doubt you had heard this one.

Personally, my first real crush came about the same time frame. She was a charming young Latina, and I was a young awkward white guy in middle school. Her brothers were not fans because of our very different backgrounds. We never stood a chance. Needless to say, this bittersweet tale made sense to my immature mind. Ah, the days of my youth! 

About this time, perhaps because of this song and my own recent heartbreak, I became curious in their lives as people not only as major recording artists. But I really didn't chase after information about them at all. Yet, who was Karen Carpenter? Even as a young man, I was pretty convinced those lyrics by John Bettis and Paul Williams accurately reflected her soul. As we all now know, the full truth was much more complicated.

Billboard charts reflected a Top Ten hit in 1972, but this record was more important than what numbers alone could tell. It was another career defining moment. Every bit on par with the work of their heroes, you can compare this to the Beach Boys Good Vibrations or even the Beatles Let It Be if you wish. The Carpenters deservedly hold their own with Goodbye to Love. It's a slice of vinyl undeniably Grammy worthy yet woefully overlooked by the Recording Academy.
                     
Had Intermission not ended the first half of the album, allowing the tune to counterbalance the dark despair of the previous one with a dose of humor, I think very sensitive listeners would have been overwhelmed. This bit of brightness provides necessary relief after such a dramatic masterpiece. The duo certainly wasn't taking themselves too seriously here - and I've grown to accept it- but I always thought this track detracted from an otherwise consistently powerful collection.

Taken as a whole, the first six tracks of A Song for You comprise as perfect a Side One as the duo ever recorded. Showing versatility and substantial growth as artists from every angle, its nearest competitor would be the opening half of Close to You. Making this bold statement says much about my reassessment, as their second album regularly alternates with Horizon as my favorite.

What would Side Two bring? 

A slightly different version of the title song 
appears on this album.

Full confession mode: I went to see this film only because Karen and Richard decided to do the theme. Bless the Beasts & Children is one of their most delicate readings. Appropriately gentle and tender considering the topic, it's very effective at getting the message across. This nuanced approach would be lost today as people with messages often find they have to yell and offend in order to communicate their cause. I find there to be a deep spiritual element to the song, and much like their faith focused Christmas selections, I can be quite moved by it. 

As the flip side to Superstar, the song was also getting a lot of airplay and charted on its own, making it almost half way to the top. Not only is Bless the Beasts that good of a recording, it also tells how hot these guys were on the radio and the charts. Some fans believe the record would have made a great "A" side on its own. Given their historic winning streak, I think they're correct in that assessment.

Probably a very unpopular opinion for die hard fans, but I think the next two selections should have remained concert favorites and left off the disc. Flat Baroque is a snappy and clever piece, and it does pair very nicely with songwriter Randy Edelman's ditty, Piano Picker. However, their inclusion breaks the mood and intimacy. Variety is good, but selections must be something innovative and still fitting to the tone of everything else found here.

I've heard these tunes "Live in Concert" while seeing them in Las Vegas more than once. They fit well there. Very well. In the context of such a strong, powerfully emotional album, inserting these two is a misfire. Richard's playing sparkles, but the style of music doesn't fit, and it takes the album down a notch or two. Listen to these on the Live at the Palladium instead

Just a thought: Later in their career, Richard recalls being dismayed, and my guess is probably hurt, by his introduction at a Billboard music industry  symposium. Thoughtlessly referred to as the "Piano player for the Carpenters", his other significant roles sadly ignored. Could the lyrics of Piano Picker have contributed to this unfortunate misrepresentation or was it just one more intentional slam hurled at the duo in their ongoing war with the Rock world?

       

This was the single that got away from them- 
for a few years! Finally released in 1974.

The next song on the album had a long road to becoming a single. Paul Williams, Roger Nichols, and the Carpenters made great music - and a fortune - when they combined their talents. I still find it odd if not remarkable that their first pairing resulted on work with Richard as lead vocalist! As good as he was on the song, I'd bet it was We've Only Just Begun followed by Rainy Days and Mondays that convinced everyone that this was a great match worth continuing. 

The beautiful Let Me Be the One made the Tan album, and I Won't Last A Day Without You was next in line to those previous. This would be their last song to make vinyl for more than ten years until Ordinary Fool, a mid-decade recording and one of their best, was placed on the posthumous Voice of the Heart album in 1983. 

Surprisingly, this new Willams / Nichols penned track was not chosen as a single after the controversial, guitar punctuated ballad. In fact, nothing from the new album was. Very odd decision by everyone involved.

The duo's interpretation fits wonderfully well on the album. Of course, I liked it upon first hearing. But I didn't love it either. This was my same reaction as with It's Going to Take Some Time. Certainly nice but something was missing. I couldn't put my finger on it. 

Karen's contralto absolutely shines on the stanzas, the most beautiful part of the song. The bridge fits the melody, the ending is sublime with the stacked vocals (reminding me of Merry Christmas Darling), but the chorus is lacking that magical touch. Is it the lyrics, the arrangement, the vocals, or the way it was recorded? Karen feels detached from what she's singing each time she reaches the chorus. Maybe it is just a case of a song having all the right individual elements, but the end result not living up to the potential. When it was finally released as a single in 1974 after two more hit albums, it was better. Tony Peluso put his mark on it, and while the guitar flourishes did liven it up, it still didn't grab me


Some of Karen's loveliest vocals on the disc as well as some of Richard's best appear on the saccharine but strange Crystal Lullaby. Definitely an odd choice for inclusion during the most successful years in their career. Nonetheless, the tune is extremely well done, thoughtful, and even adventurous. Much like the earlier poetic Another Song, it changes quite a bit but with more of an easy listening flavor. Yearning for simpler times and carefree summers, it seemed so out of place here that I bypassed it as musical cotton candy. In retrospect many decades later, there's a bittersweet quality to it all. I appreciate it all the more as the years go on.

Behind the smiles...

Dark and brooding, Road Ode makes me wish Richard dipped from the songwriting well of his band members more often. Written by Dan Woodhams and Gary Sims, it's the closing chapter to the story begun by the opening cut. This look at life on the touring circuit with Karen, Richard, and band isn't pretty. Revealed to be not the least bit glamorous, but instead lonely, tiring, and at times, not worth it. You can hear their utter exhaustion. 

Was it taking its toll? They were all so young, but had they hit their limit by the constant touring? Richard often said he and Karen were "recording artists". Interviews at the time never revealed what was going on behind the scenes, and they were always too polite to suggest things were less than perfect. Even if they had, I doubt if anyone listened, much to their label's and management's later regret.

A frantic flute solo highlights the piece grounded by a mournful oboe, deep strings, and the constant, strident plea to return home. "Roads of sorrow". Wow. Looking back on their grueling concert schedule, it's certainly autobiographical. When listening to these three songs together as one continuing chapter,  I Won't Last A Day Without You, Crystal Lullaby and Road Ode make quite the statement about their lives. You can see there really was toxic waste under FantasylandThe price of success, fame, and fortune. 

You'd think Richard would end the album with the requisite love song. After all, that was the duo's bread and butter. Instead, he dug deeper and gave listeners something unexpectedly vulnerable. Back in '72, the whole message of the song was missed while the artistry was my focal point. After taking a fresh look, I've come to realize this song is yet another gem, a very personal one, in a substantial portfolio. (The 1990 remix is even better than the original if you can find it.)

Side Two truly ends with a rolling harp leading into a dreamlike reprise of A Song for You. It's a classy touch, one of many Richard incorporated into their albums over the years, but it may also be a concession to the fans. Few desire to listen to a disc that ends on notes of despair. So, he and Karen don the mask of artist one more time to give the fans what we want... and leave us wanting even more.

"...and when my life is over, remember when we were together."

After almost 50 years, my hunch is A Song for You is the duo's most discussed and respected album by fans and critics alike. It's not perfect, but it is certainly their most personal work, setting the stage for even greater heights of stardom and sales. Albums following would expand their audience even wider. These future years would also bring pain and heartache, making fans appreciate their song for us even if decades after the fact. 

What a legacy Karen and Richard have created! This lengthy "Fresh Look" has made me look both backward and forward, making me think about my own legacy as well. What will my life say to those I leave behind? Great art makes you think, makes you feel, makes you change. Mission accomplished with this album.


Album cover showing side flap with logo.
Thanks to Jonathan for this image from his site.

Thank you for your patience in waiting for this review. I hope it was worth your time reading. It was worth my time in writing it, as I've gained a deeper appreciation for this album in most every way. I will say this: The next collection, Now & Then, should be a breeze by comparison!
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Special thanks to those who tirelessly built the great The Complete Carpenters Recording Resource, to "Rick- An Ordinary Fool" for sharing so many rare scans, and to all my on line friends on the A&M Corner boards. 

This one is for Harry, our moderator on the boards, who tirelessly championed this album year after year after year until I finally "got" it. Thank you, Harry.


My Original Carpenters album reviews:




My Revisited Fresh Look at the albums:



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