February 21, 2018

Carpenters Revisited: A Fresh Look at Carpenters (the Tan Album)

How do you follow up a smash hit album and two monster singles? If there was a disc to follow up "Close to You" that could prove Karen and Richard were more than just a fluke, "Carpenters" aka the "Tan album", was just the one to do it. And it did, but anyone who was paying close attention could see that trouble might already be stirring on the horizon. Although Richard is quick to say that the duo had been preparing for success for years, sometimes the reality can be a bit different than what is imagined in the minds of fans. This disc reflects those truths- including a record label that wasn't paying too much attention in the wake of all that success.

A beautiful and gentle first single from the collection to come.

Had this been decades later, as became the custom throughout the industry, A&M Records would have milked the breakthrough album for at least two more singles. A third one was considered, but the release of the popular movie Lovers and Other Strangers in the summer of 1970 put an end to that thought. Badly needing a break, Richard happened to be out viewing the movie, and his attention was captured by the tune written by two founding members of the group Bread. Back into the studio our duo went, and their version was released mid January of 1971.

Looking at the Billboard sales charts and listening to the radio at the time, the Carpenters were very easy to find in the top ranks of both. Merry Christmas Darling, their first Christmas hit, was released on November 20, 1970 (after taking one whole week to record and mix etc.) and instantly became a classic. For the sales charts ending January 2, just a couple of months later, We've Only Just Begun was still in the Top 30. Essentially, this meant Karen's voice was just everywhere on the radio. It was great for the fans, but it also meant the duo was rarely resting and always at work. This pattern of constantly being in the studio or out touring would last for many years. In the long term, this was much to their detriment.

With Jose Feliciano circa 1975

Coming so quickly after two smash songs, when the new single hit the radio, it hit big- but nothing like the two releases that followed where each was stronger than the one that came before. Yet, For All We Know was set apart by the instantly iconic opening notes, and Richard's tender arrangement was once again a perfect setting for Karen's golden voice. The beautiful woodwind opening played by Earle Dumler, however, was not the first choice by Richard. He had something unexpected in mind.

Musician Jose Feliciano was a fan of the Carpenters, and after running into them in a local restaurant, expressed to Richard that he'd love to be on one of their recordings. It all came together very quickly, but upon hearing of the news, Feliciano's short sighted manager demanded his client's work on the acoustic guitar be erased. Sadly, it was- and for good. It would have made a great alternate take for a boxed set. This unfortunate episode perhaps negatively flavored Richard's view of working with other artists on future recordings.

Of course, once I heard For All We Know on the radio, like everyone else smitten by this new romantic sound, I had to have it. By this point in time, visits to my local record store in Garden Grove became a weekly event. Every week, I took off on my bike for the fairly short ride just blocks away. I bet the owners got sick of me as I asked for the newest release by the duo everytime I walked in! At least the older couple who owned it knew I had good taste. 

That was my first clue I was out of step.

Although it was the third single in a row by the duo to hit a "gold" level of sales, eventually, For All We Know topped out at Number Three on the charts in the middle of March. This disappointed Karen and Richard and their record company but not nearly as much as the disappointing chart action from the two singles that followed. Not in artistry, however, as they would be considered among the duo's best recordings. 

Rainy Days and Mondays did in fact get me down.

In previous reviews, particularly this series where I take a fresh look at their music, I've shared that the Carpenters and their music have had a huge impact on my life, including forming my view on romance and love. But it went even deeper.

Moving around as often as I did, making new friends was not an easy thing to do. An ongoing sense of loneliness and melancholy started to take root in my life. I didn't even see it coming. The next single became something I "owned" to a large degree. Rainy Days and Mondays seemed to put my feelings into one single song. The lyrics by Paul Williams coupled with the reading by my now favorite vocalist was too much to resist. 

It's a testament to the power of the recording and the popularity of the duo that Rainy Days would be an early summer hit. The powerful but decidedly downbeat hit was huge- but it too also just missed out at the top spot of the Hot 100. Being Number Two had to do. For quite a few weeks it seemed no one could beat the powerful Carole King double A sided single of It's Too Late / I Feel the Earth Move. The singer songwriter's smash also kept The Rolling Stones' epic Brown Sugar from the top, so at least Karen and Richard were in very respectable company.

I loved the flip side of the Rainy Days single!
The artistic touches of using the picture logo in two different colors was just cool!

When their eponymously named album was released at about the time Rainy Days hit its peak, I found that the next song to be a clear hit was the opener of Side Two- the powerful Leon Russell penned Superstar, the thematic and stylistic antithesis to Close to You, We've Only Just Begun, and For All We Know.

Beginning with the deep opening notes of one of Richard's finest goosebump inducing arrangements, the song is instantly iconic. Karen effortlessly delivers a richly shaded vocal performance, one to build a career- and a reputation- upon. There's no light to be found here! In fact, after this song, other singers began to be compared to her, making Karen the new gold standard of voices in the music industry. 

In over 45 years, no one, not Bette Midler, not Rita Coolidge, not Luther Vandross, can do this song like Karen. The recording is made even stronger by Richard's wise restraint. His stark, straight-forward arrangement contributes powerfully to a landmark recording, by any measurement and in any decade. 

The 45 single debut of the magnificent Carpenters logo.
Another defining moment in their career.

Upon first listen, the label executives just knew they had a big hit on their hands. The bigger question was how would they market it?

This time, A&M would fight fire with fire. Not only was this a groundbreaking hit, the single also had the distinction of a flip side with a recording not found on the new album, the title track to the popular film Bless the Beasts and Children. The one-two punch gave it momentum, moving the single from its #49 debut to Number 17 in one week. Superstar kept moving up the charts, but once again the Carpenters were denied their place at the top by a double A sided release. This time it was Maggie May / Reason to Believe by Rod Stewart at the end of October. What would it take to get back to Number 1? The next single, but that's a different story for the A Song For You album review.

Without argument, Superstar ranks among the best of the duos recordings, and it sounds as contemporary now as the time of its recording. Even music industry types and Rock and Roll lovers who didn't necessarily like their style had to appreciate the artistry of the duo behind it. To this day, it is often listed as one of the the Carpenters finest accomplishments.

Looking at today's artists, I maintain that Adele or her producers had to have one day heard Karen's vocal on the dark, moody, totally mesmerizing Superstar as an oldie playing on the radio. They must have taken notice of the arrangement and production of it as well. I can clearly hear the recording's impact on Adele's instantly also iconic recordings, arrangements, and vocal style. 

The inspiration. 

After discussing the three hit singles from this Grammy award winning album, I think it's time to stop and talk about the duo's image and how this album affected it. In a word, disaster. The problem continued downhill from here on out, never recovering.

The suits were partially to blame, but so was our duo, as they intentionally or unknowingly picked a fight with their Rock and Roll peers, dividing the community of fans as well, all out as if they were forcing them to choose sides. Things seemed to get worse over the years with each additional interview, fluctuating from seeming to look for a fight with their peers (boasting how many hits they've had in spite of being rejected by their harder rocking musical contemporaries) to referencing their success in ways very few music lovers could relate (comparisons to Fred and Adele Astaire).

A much better photo could have been found inside that envelope.

As for me, it was not an easy time to be a fan of Karen and Richard. Sure, there was an abundance of new recordings all the time, but it was not a cool thing for a guy to admit he loved Karen's voice when Janis Joplin and hard rock was more what was expected. (For the record, I was a big fan of Rock and Roll, with Free's All Right Now and the Rolling Stones Brown Sugar finding its place in my collection next to my beloved Motown records.) I'm sure my love for Karen's voice further divided me out from friends my age, although it sure made my grandparents happy. 

That should have been my second clue there was a problem.

The duo's image was the Achille's Heel in their career, contributing to some serious problems in their personal and professional lives. It's well known in the music industry that it was considered an embarrassment to work for the label that brought Karen and Richard to the radio, in spite of all that money and all the awards to come. But back to the Tan album.

                                     That statement is debatable at best.

Let's begin with the positives. There's much to appreciate about this album from an artistic standpoint. The elegant Carpenters logo designed by Craig Braun and Associates is front and center, making its first album appearance. The envelop style presentation was unique and lovely, subtly communicating the duo was worth something special. It's only upon opening the flap that the real trouble begins. 

The final choice. My Funny Valentine?
What were the suits thinking?

Richard has often reminded interviewers that he absolutely hated the cover photo of the Close to You album. Actually, I find the Tan album photograph, found inside the envelope, so much worse. Karen and Richard come across as sugary sweet, with their bangs perfectly coiffed, everything airbrushed to studio perfection. It all makes them look like lovers instead of serious artists. (And what is it with that see through shirt, Richard?) Where was Herb Alpert in this? What about Sherwin Bash their manager? Was no one looking out for them long term? There are other indicators that the answer to these questions is "No".

Two great photos of Karen.
More in keeping what would have been a better choice in presentation.

The Tan album was released May 31st, and in my mind, it was worth not skipping over the songs I'd already heard so that I might listen to the disc as a thoughtful collection of songs. Sure, Rainy Days and Mondays was a surprise, but could the rest of the music on the disc counteract their sugary image? 

Beginning with the somber but clearly brilliant Rainy Days, there's more than enough of a bluesy edge and serious tone here as to not come across cutesy. Definitely a change in pace from the sweet and hopeful singles before it. Once the harmonica sets the stage, Karen defines the song with her ease up and down the scales while communicating a depth of soul searching well beyond her age. A stunning saxophone solo begins the second half of the recording, with Karen and Richard providing a wall of sound in the background. This arrangement lets Karen's lead vocal command the stage, all the way to a searing finish. A brand new Paul Williams / Roger Nichols / Carpenters masterpiece is born.

Saturday follows it up with a "next chapter in the story" tune that's lightweight, horn-punctuated, bouncy fluff. It's completely in line with the others upbeat pop offerings of the day. Bright, crisp, fun, and totally non-offensive with a pleasant lead vocal by Richard.

Next in the lineup come two of the best cuts on the album, the one that got away Let Me Be the One, and the mesmerizing Hideaway. The former, another outstanding Paul Williams ballad, contained words I unintentionally took to heart over the years: "Come to me when things go wrong...". Whenever I needed a little peace, quiet, or hope, I ran to the record player just to listen to the voice I'd grown to love. It was years before I realized there was a better Voice I needed to hear.  

A plain vanilla ad unbefitting such a landmark record.

The latter song, the beautifully atmospheric (A Place to) Hideaway written by Randy Sparks, further deepened my melancholy image of Karen: "...I run though the mist of the wine. The night and the music remind me instead, the world once was mine..." Very prophetic of what was to come for her just barely over a decade later.

Billboard ad for the earlier Carpenters hit.

Closing with For All We Know, Side One ends, albeit much too quickly. The album as a whole shortchanges the listener with its brevity. This also highlights another important area that A&M executives and the duo's management ignored, but I'll address that after more thoughts on the music.
The opening song choices seem to avoid playing into their image problems or creating conflict- at least on the first side of the disc. The music even seems to suggest Karen and Richard could mix it up by bridging lightweight pop with more serious, rock influenced work. As Side Two opens, certainly Superstar fits the mold, but then the duo throws away what they've accomplished with the next cut, even furthering their battle with the rock world. 

The inclusion of the awful Druscilla Penny was just an unwise choice all around. The duo's management or the label executives should have demanded its removal from the album. Easily the worst song by Richard and John Bettis and actually in their entire repertoire. Vocally, Richard's performance is lacking and only makes the listener want to move on to a song with Karen on lead.  Even worse, the lyrics are a clear mockery of the world of Rock and Roll. The tune comes across as smug, a bit self-righteous, and with a harpsichord hook that seems archaic. Did our artists just want to start a fight? Were the folks in charge of their career intentionally sabotaging them? Why in the world would any of them choose this route? 

           The Billboard magazine ad for the new album.

With just nine months between the release of the Close to You album and this album, something had to give. In this particular instance, sometimes it was the choice of material. One Love is a pleasant enough song, but given the brilliance of the ballads on the first half of the disc, something stronger would have been expected. 

Alright, I'll say it: A Burt Bacharach Medley in any form is a winner. Karen was born to sing his stuff just as much as she was interpreting the work of Richard and John's or Paul Williams, but the inclusion of the medley comes with concerns. Covering I'll Never Fall in Love Again when it had just been given the full length treatment several months prior shows once again that no one in their camp was truly paying attention. Richard should have been sent back in the studio to demand that different and previously unused songs were included instead of allowing the duo to repeat themselves. Especially when the album was already short in length. (From the fan feedback given the medley on their 1980 television special, Make It Easy on Yourself should have been given its own full version recording. Yes, it is that good.)

Another Billboard magazine ad. 
This one for Rainy Days and Mondays.

Including a song by Henry Mancini was a risky move as the duo was already battling an old school image, but it brought a fitting and tender close to the album. Sometimes is one I refer to as "Karen's Thanksgiving Song", and from first listen, I loved it. It reminds modern day listeners how effective Richard and Karen could be without all the gimmicks or excessive arrangements that seemed to plague some of their latter recordings.

Classy. That's all I can say.

Was the Tan album a success? Absolutely. In a turn of events that had to be poetic justice in some way, the album was a Grammy winner, containing several of their most loved recordings. The disc also confirmed what many folks were beginning to realize: Karen was a world class singer, a voice for her generation and one that would never be found again. It would take years for people to realize Richard was a genius, but the proof was there for those who looked deeper.

Unfortunately, the Tan album also added to their image problems and contributed to Karen and Richard being labeled "Easy Listening". The song selection seemed to reinforce that idea as on this album they moved away from any of the Jazz and Rock textures that were found on their first two releases. The strong cuts are terrific, but the weak cuts are very weak. They were pressured to put out an album, and it shows. Imagine just how stunning the results would have been if they'd had the chance to slow down, think some things through, and add a couple more songs to the collection.

Promoting the album Down Under.

As it stands, the Tan album is still a terrific listen, representing a young and enthusiastic duo in their prime. The next release a year later, A Song For You, would contain some incredible cuts in a wider variety of styles, making it a fan and critical favorite. Richard would truly show his chops as a songwriter, and Karen would continue to enchant us with that voice. Yet the same album would reveal that the constant touring and non-stop pressure were just beginning to take its toll on them. 
A very special thanks to those folks who constructed The Complete Carpenters Recording Resource, to "Rick- An Ordinary Fool" for so many rare scans, and all my friends on the A&M Corner boards. 

My Original Carpenters album reviews:

My Revisited Fresh Look at the albums:

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