April 6, 2009

Soft Sell: Carpenters A Kind of Hush

Fans of Richard and Karen Carpenter should not have been surprised by their 1976 release, A Kind of Hush. The years before them were very successful- wildly so- and also pretty exhausting. 

Between constant touring and putting out one album after another, Karen started melting away and was eventually hospitalized while Richard was experiencing creative burnout and health problems of his own. A cancelled tour, worried fans, and that earlier Sedaka incident only added to the stress.

Eventually, whether it was by sheer habit or business pressure, it was time to resume the career and recording. The first single, released in time for Valentine's Day, was a remake of the old Herman's Hermits tune, There's a Kind of Hush All Over the World. It was the first prominent presentation of Karen's softer voice- one that would be used from here on out, Passage aside. It is an almost breathy, early Olivia Newton-John style lead vocal. Their "trademarked" backing accompanied a pleasant arrangement and production. Richard now wishes they never recorded the song, but to this fan, it is still a very enjoyable listen. (The song sounds really great in a good set of earphones!) 

Landing on the Billboard charts in the Top Twenty would be quite the accomplishment for any artist, but the Carpenters were not just any musical act. Top Ten hits were the norm for a first single from a new album but not for this one.

The single preceding the album would be its emotional centerpiece and an eventual enduring classic: I Need to Be in Love. Hearing this new Carpenter/Bettis song on the local radio station one day, I sensed this to be a very personal one for Karen, and later interviews would confirm the suspicion. Considering the number of world famous hits and solid album tracks Richard and John have written, this one song remains their masterpiece, perfectly showcasing the team's songwriting skills. As a recording, Karen's rendering is no less than perfect. The beautifully tender arrangement is in direct contrast to the absolute desperation that seeps through Karen's vocals and the song lyrics. The only misstep was not using their own voices for backup, stripping the sound of more emotional power and impact.

A&M Records must have sensed this would one day be a classic, as this was one of the first releases on the label to have a promotional video. Or they understood the music business was changing and promotional tools had to change with it. Maybe the company management eventually understood the Carpenters were an act that would last beyond their lifetime and finally treated their most financially profitable act with some respect beyond Karen and Richard's earning power.

The Billboard ad for the first single.

Even with the unfortunately sappy and overdone choir in the background, something that should have been saved for only Christmas albums, I Need to Be in Love sounded like hit material. Certainly Top Ten, I thought, but it shockingly charted even lower then the previous single. Must have been frustrating and disappointing for everyone involved. Had this heart-wrenching ballad been released just a couple of years earlier, it certainly would have been Number One. It eventually was a chart topper, but in Japan and almost two decades later. Regardless of its sales and popularity, I Need to Be in Love is a standout cut and was still the new single promoting the album.

The full album finally hit stores in mid-June. In contrast to Horizon, there would be minimal in-store promotion. In fact, to my surprise, I discovered this album in a box under the display table in a Warehouse Records store. The times had certainly changed.

The wonderful presentation and my love of the first two singles convinced me this had to be a very special album even before my first listen. And it was- but not for reasons I expected! On one level, this album brings out many seeming contradictions in my views regarding it. I know it is one of the Carpenters' weaker efforts, yet in many ways it is one of my favorite albums and brings happy memories upon each listen.

As a follow up to "Horizon", the new album almost demanded to be taken seriously as the Carpenters had been at the top of their game. Seemingly in defiance and response to the serious topical nature of this near-perfect previous collection, Richard and Karen crafted a new one that seemed forced with a cheeriness not all sincere. Beneath the smiles on the cover photo, this was a disc of immense softness, one out of touch with the trends of the day. It was one in which any rock sensibilities - any credibility earned- were seemingly ignored. "Sacrificed" might be the better word choice considering the long term damage this disc did to their career on Pop radio.

A&M's ad for the album in Billboard.

Starting with "There's a Kind of Hush", Side One of this album is fairly weak. "You" had the potential to be its own chart topper, yet there is something very rote about both its performance and arrangement. It lacks the bite of the album cuts on earlier discs. In fact, most everything on this album sounds softer, rounded, more muted. The crispness and precision in the playing and in pronunciation of words on "Horizon" are not to be found here. I much prefer Karen's softer singing voice heard here over her earlier huskier one, yet it seems wasted on most of the songs. Overall, its a very feminine sounding collection, as Richard's vocal presence is also understated. Ultimately, "Hush" is the middle of the road album they were always accused of making!

One of few Carpenter/Bettis originals on the disc, "Sandy" is among the weakest of their songbook. Songs with proper names as titles had mostly been indicators of trouble in the past, (see "Eve", "Mr. Guder", and "Druscilla Penny") and this was no exception. Weak and vapid. I know it is a stinging assessment but not everything the Carpenters recorded could be the caliber of "Superstar", "Goodbye to Love" or "Ordinary Fool" (which actually was recorded for this disc but never made the cut). In fact, "Sandy" was so soft and lightweight, it made it onto Richard's solo album of elevator music twenty years later, (Richard Carpenter: Pianist, Arranger, Composer, Conductor) with very little change if any.

Next up was a quirky remake that should have never been a single release let alone part of an album. By the time I finished listening to "Goofus", I had accessed that their time in the spotlight was over. Had their parents asked them to record this tune? I had to wonder. The first side finishes with the pleasant "Can't Smile Without You". It's only distinction being it was a hit by Barry Manilow a couple of years later.

As much as Side One was a disappointment upon first listen, Side Two almost fully compensates for it. Beginning with a new solo piano introduction to "I Need to Be in Love", this half of the collection feels like an entirely different album, one more serious and much better crafted. "One More Time" is the perfect follow-up song here. Karen's reading is warm, intimate, and wistful. Although the lyrics are entirely different, the comparison to "Sometimes" from the Tan album comes to mind. Much like Ray Price's country pop classic "For the Good Times", it is a song full of story and atmosphere. I loved it immediately. Why this song has not found itself on more compilations is something I still do not understand.

What can I say about "Boat to Sail"? I absolutely love this song, and thirty years later, never tire of hearing it. Living in Huntington Beach, California at the time, and spending some of it sailing with friends, this song brings back pleasant memories of sunny days on the water. Karen's light, sensual vocal and Richard's terrific jazz arrangement and piano playing make this a treat. If I ever play one song from the album, this is the one.

A honest to goodness lullaby is next in line. The vocal pieces and intentionally old school arrangement of "I Have You" take what could be a sentimental and ordinary song to new level of sweetness without corniness. Now bittersweetness, when I think of Karen's life. It's the emotional flip side to "I Need to Be in Love", and I'm drawn in again, believing her every word.

Just as I thought, "Wow, four great songs in a row", the last song played. When I saw the song selection in the record store, "Breaking Up is Hard to Do" was the one song I couldn't wait to get home to hear. Neil Sedaka's remake with a slow boil, tender  arrangement would made for a great listen! I couldn't wait for Karen to wrap her voice around an amazing arrangement by Richard. I patiently waited.

Richard's playful vocal intro leads right into the original upbeat version. To say I was disappointed is a profound understatement, and it took me awhile to give the song a fair shake. To redeem this album as a serious effort, "Breaking Up" should have been a torch song. It could have been a song like "This Masquerade"- and it could have reminded a listening audience aware of the "Sedaka incident" that no one compares to Karen. Instead, it is playful and quite fun, but it reinforces that "A Kind of Hush" was meant to be fluffy and light.

Although the songs inside were comparatively weak for a Carpenters disc, the album photography by Ed Caraeff is gorgeous, and artwork by Roland Young was quite distinct and innovative. The cover mixed a beautiful picture of the duo with some artistic enhancements. Well done- and before the days of Photoshop! The image below is actually of the inside of the cardboard jacket. It's a classy touch. Having the "Carpenters Wallpaper" inside the jacket wasn't necessary, but again, it is small touches like this that please die-hard fans.

To complete the overall presentation, the label of the record itself was special, something created just for this release. This may have been the first and only time A&M Records did this for an artist. The image below does not do this justice! It is only a reminder to this listener what a treat records and record jackets were to behold. Twelve inches by twelve inches of artistic beauty!

The backside of the album cover continued the theme. Another piece of artwork lost to the designs and limitations of compact disc. I always thought this album had the visual elegance that was captured sonically on "Horizon".

The photography sessions were particularly productive, and many of the shots have been used for various compilations and anthologies.

My favorite photo of Karen.

Karen and Richard Carpenter lost perspective and credibility by following up the amazing album "Horizon" with "A Kind of Hush". Don't get me wrong- the album is one of my favorites, but the MOR choir background on the beautiful "I Need to Be in Love" was the kiss of death to the Carpenters as a rock/pop act. "Goofus" as a single just cemented it. They would never again be taken seriously by Pop/Rock radio or programmers. I think in these two choices alone, Richard showed how out of step the "Carpenters team"- label, agent, and artist themselves- was with the record buying public. The public confirmed this fact by the underwhelming support of both the singles and the album.

For this fan, "Hush" was a bit of "breather", a lightweight piece with some strong points and contradictions- including one of my own. It's a weak album and yet, it is probably the one I play most. Why? Karen's voice is the primary reason I listen to the Carpenters' music, and I love how she sounds on this collection. Richard's genius adds to the pleasure.

Upon first listen to this collection, I was willing to give Karen and Richard a break after the masterful previous album. It seemed they had been through a lot since its release. On the plus side, the disc further confirmed what I knew: I just had to see them live in concert. Their next appearance at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas was coming up, and this time I would be there. Unknown to me, it would end up being my chance to meet them face to face and say "Thank You for the Music".
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:


Vintage Disneyland Tickets said...

OMG this is amazing~! I printed is out and I'm going to read every word at Lunch today. I'm sure I'll have more comments then! THANKS!

Mark said...

My pleasure!