July 16, 2008

Easy Listening Defined: Carpenters' Tan Album

To be a Carpenters fan in the early seventies was a dream in many ways, a nightmare in others. It was tough going explaining to your friends that yes, that was a Carpenters single right next to All Right Now from Free or Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones. In fact, I eventually hid my Carpenters records until I knew my new friends wouldn't avoid me when they discovered my guilty pleasure! On the plus side of being a Carpenters fan, you also knew that a new single or album was always right around the corner as Karen and Richard were highly productive. In fact, it was a mere nine months between the release of the Close to You album and the self-titled one later known among fans as the Tan album.

Carpenters was a landmark, Grammy award winning collection because of some classic performances and impeccable production. Yet it was important for other reasons as well. The release of the disc set in place frustrations that would greatly bother the duo for the remainder of their career.

The soft and sweet first release from the album.

The powerful second single.

Another career defining single release.
No one would or could cover it like Karen.

While this album presents the first appearance of the elegant Carpenters logo- and so further defined them- it also begins a long season of bad marketing and syrupy publicity photos. Most importantly, the dividing line between the Rock and Roll world and Karen and Richard was set firmly in place and made even worse by an unfortunate original song. Battle lines were clearly drawn. Egos flared. Animosity between the camps would last for years with fans caught in the middle.

For the most part, the music was stunning. In reviewing the content of each album based only on its singles, Carpenters contains three powerful performances, each one better than its predecessor. Never again would Karen and Richard release such an artistically and commercially successful string of 45s: For All We Know, Rainy Days and Mondays, Superstar. The latter two are regarded by many in the music community and fans alike as the Carpenters' consummate performances, noting the blend of Karen's showstopping vocals and Richard's insightfully wise arrangements.

Billboard magazine ad for Rainy Days and Mondays.

Billboard ad for the Tan album- already gold.

Single releases aside, the disc contains the intimate Let Me Be the One, the wistful Hideaway, and the simple reflective Sometimes. It is the rest of the material that highlights some potential problems in the Carpenters camp. A generally mellow sounding disc, the tan album steps even further away from any rock and roll nuances, avoiding the 60s and the Beatles and Beach Boys influences altogether. I liked it- loved it even- but the album did not have the variety of textures I so appreciated on Close to You.
Unimaginative ad for Superstar- one of their most powerful releases.

The Bacharach Medley, although a very fun listen, reuses material from the previous album, showing that Richard might have been rushed into getting this album to market. Saturday is a nice sounding tune containing a lead vocal by him and an arrangement sounding like a tribute to Herb Alpert. However, coming on the heels of Rainy Days, it seems a gimmick. Side Two's original Carpenter/Bettis song One Love tastes a bit too sweet and sentimental, but it is the selection before it which causes my teeth to grind a bit.

Obviously wanting to follow the content of Superstar from a different angle, Richard and John came up with Druscilla Penny. Bluntly, this is a terrible song all around- in my mind their worst ever. The lyric line smugly takes a swing at rock and roll bands and their groupies, just begging for a fight. A&M should have demanded this song be replaced with something else. Ironically, many of these same executives had a purported dislike of Karen and Richard and their music. (See below. Notice who is standing behind Karen and Richard's album? I'd prefer to think the shot was done in good humor.) Maybe allowing this song was a type of silent mutiny. Regardless, this fine album would have been much better without it.

A&M poking fun at their best selling artists.

Ultimately the tan album took its place at the top of the sales charts for many months and continued their string of hits. Superstar and Rainy Days and Mondays became instant classics. Karen began to be recognized for her marvelous voice. Fans wanted more- and the duo delivered with constant touring, single and album releases, and television appearances. 

Promoting the album in Australia in May 1972.

But with success came pressure, as A&M and the Carpenter's manager realized they had a cash cow on their hands. The yearly album release would no doubt happen again, and this time Richard and Karen would deliver one many fans consider their masterpiece.
2021 Note: This is part of a continuing series of posts on the albums of Karen and Richard Carpenter. There are also numerous stand alone posts highlights different aspects of their career, recordings, and life. 

Below is the list of my initial reviews and then my "Revisited /Fresh Look" reviews a decade later. 

My Initial Reviews of the albums:

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