April 11, 2020

Carpenters Revisited: A Fresh Look at Now & Then

"When I was young, I'd listen to the radio..."     In these days of the Coronavirus, I find myself reflecting on my life. I have sweet memories of family times, exploring new places, lazy days in the sun on the beach, working in the garden with my wife and young kids, and car rides filled with music. Even something as simple dinners with friends or a Sunday morning church service to worship God together seem like things from the past. I miss helping others, running camps for underprivileged kids and other projects, all with a group of people who love God and love others. I miss the ease in which I was able to go about as I pleased. How many things I took for granted! Karen's words seem all the more poignant than ever before. But for today, and for this article, it's yesterday once more.

Can I begin this fresh look review with a controversial statement regarding the 5th disc by Carpenters? I either really enjoy Now & Then or it ends up being one of the albums I listen to the least. How did I get to this place after hearing it for over four decades? Read on.

After the release of the stellar A Song For You album, fans and critics alike were curious as to what would be next. Serious artistic credibility was awarded the duo when the last single from the album, Goodbye to Love, blazed on the Billboard charts with its unexpected and searing guitar solo by Tony Peluso. Yet, nothing came afterwards. Just about six months later, the first single from their forthcoming album arrived, and it defiantly threw that credibility aside. 

Was this any way to build credibility?

Sing was everything Goodbye to Love was not. 

Lightweight, happy, upbeat, candy coated lyrics, complete with background vocals by a group of kids. But true to form, it was taken seriously by the producer.  Even the great Tom Scott played that simple little recorder piece! This was nothing more than a Sesame Street song aiming for the Top Ten. 

Here at the top of their astounding sales and pop success, these international superstars were singing a simple children's song long before "Children's albums" were popular. Several years later, pop music fans would get John Denver with the Muppets (1979), Olivia Newton-John's Warm and Tender (1989), and Kenny Loggins' Return to Pooh Corner (1994)- all albums for the younger market and their parents. But in 1973, this could have been career suicide. Was choosing this deceptively simple, unassuming song foolishness or was it a stroke of pure brilliance on Richard's part? Could it also be a reflection of the humility we found in Karen who, at least in the early years, seemed to willingly trust and submit to the direction of her genius brother's artistic direction? 

Recording the song was one thing, but the same question of wisdom or foolishness should also be asked of the decision to release it as a single. Nonetheless, the new record hit it big in April of 1973 due to their immense popularity, a long string of chart toppers, and the obvious truth that the song was in fact very catchy. In addition to Sing being nominated for a Grammy, there was soon one more gold record to hang on their wall. This one for a Number Three release that bested Barbra Streisand's 1972 version which landed at #94.

On TV: Robert Young with the Young
where the song was first heard by Richard.

But why Sing? Was this Richard's way of giving the middle finger to the rock community that had snubbed them so long? Was this his way of saying they would do as they pleased, thank you very much? It would be difficult not to fight back after receiving so much hatred because of their art.

The announcement in Billboard.

Perhaps it wasn't such a stretch. One of 1972's big hits was Sammy Davis Jr.'s frothy Candy Man. Then the following year, just a couple of weeks after Sing was released, the equally catchy singalong number Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree by Tony Orlando and Dawn hit big. Really big. So maybe pure pop kid-friendly music was still acceptable to some degree. Although I loved just about everything Karen and Richard chose to do, this record made it difficult to be known as a fan. It only reinforced what harsher critics thought about the duo. Totally white bread America, playing to an older, gentler, conservative audience.

On the television special.
(Again, from Getty images.)

In spite of Karen and Richard's success with the record, it had to be a head scratcher to industry insiders. Their manager Sherwin Bash, and perhaps even A&M Records executives, had a fondness for linking them to much loved, well established, but decidedly older, performers: the amazing Carol Burnett, iconic Bob Hope, Gene Kelly and the like. The idea to pair them with television star Robert Young for a special broadcast seemed no different than others. Why were more contemporary stars ignored? Were Karen and Richard never considered for projects with current artists or was this a conscience decision on their parts or someone else to separate themselves? Regardless of the reason, this choice may have shortened their chart life, but by the same token, the group's avoidance of following trends may have contributed to their enduring longevity.

Were these old school stars chosen at the request or influence of parents Harold and Agnes who might have tried to protect their kids from the excesses of Hollywood? More than one junior psychologist has attempted to tie their later troubles and Karen's anorexia to the duo's upbringing, making out their mother to be villainous at best. When we face hardship and struggle, we each make our own choices in life, good and bad. The truth is, so many things we love about Karen -her approachability, her warm humility, her quirky but very vulnerable charm- were also the result of her old fashioned upbringing. Therefore for many reasons including being kind, I say it is time to leave the human and imperfect Agnes, in particular, alone.

Regardless of the reason it was chosen, Sing was an undeniable hit.

Above images from Vinyl Album Covers.com

When Now & Then was finally released to the public on May 1st of 1973, it was clear Karen and Richard Carpenter returned with an album that sounded very different from their previous and very ambitious collection. The tri-fold cover was unique- and expensive- befitting A&M Record's best selling act. Making a clean break from the look of the previous two album covers, the beautiful Carpenters logo would still be prominent, but the brother and sister team were finally presented by A&M marketing as contemporary artists in a contemporary setting. Richard may have hated the cover as he did many others, but it was a good beginning to being viewed more favorably in tune with the times.

  Yes, the house looked just like that.

I tried...

As for me, I loved the cover, and when it was revealed by the fan club that the photo was taken in front of the Carpenter home, I made it a point to drive there as it wasn't more than 20 minutes away by freeway. Often. I knew the street name, so I jumped into my not-so-trusty 1967 Ford Cougar with my Thomas Brothers Map in hand. Once I found Newville Avenue, it was very easy to find their home as there were few houses on the street. 

Of the many visits I made to Downey, I never once caught even a glimpse of Karen, Richard, or their parents. I did see the van there once. Tempted as I was to knock on the front door, I never did. I was also a child of some good old fashioned upbringing (to a degree), being taught to respect the privacy of other people. As if to reward my patience and treating them respectfully, just a few years later, I was able to meet both of them backstage after a concert in Las Vegas and have a conversation with Karen. (Read about it here.) But back to the album...

On the Now & Then tour. She loved her drums!

An autographed tour book. Not mine, unfortunately.

Given so many releases came at the beginning of school being out and because I had a mid-summer birthday, it was customary for me to receive a Carpenters album as a gift. Well, that and a ticket book to Disneyland! My wonderful grandmothers- may they Rest In Peace- always looked out for me, so I convinced one of them to buy me the Now & Then album as a very early present. I was not disappointed.

Opening a new album by Karen and Richard was always quite an event. Even if I was sure there would be yet another album the following year, the first listen was always special. I'm sure I was a bit distracted with the fresh, innovative packaging of the album when I put the disc on my parents huge television/ stereo console fake walnut wood monstrosity.  Sing I knew, so I could quickly look at at all of the packaging before song number two came on.

A single in Mexico, 
a B-side to 1974's Please Mr. Postman in the U.S.

I was not prepared for This Masquerade. On every level it was just unexpected. I didn't "get" the style, it seemed too old and too lengthy a recording at the time. Yet the completed song sounded so, so good! It wasn't until years later I came to fully appreciate the beauty and utter sophistication of what had been accomplished by everyone involved. From the engineering to the mixing, the song and the album were sonically crisp and clean. 

As far as the players, here each one is at the top of their craft. As expected, Karen sounds incredible, but if possible, even more so on this number. Using her God given vocal gift, she was up front and in the room right there. Her subtle phrasing on some key words (noticeably the first use of "lost") gave it a sensual flair in the midst of resigning that long term relationship to one now placed in the past. Whether Karen sang higher or hit those wonderfully long, lower register notes which rightly made her famous, it was a flawlessly mature, beautifully textured performance. Certainly ahead of its time for me.

Regarding the instrumentation, Karen's drumming was just as accomplished as her vocals. She's in fine form throughout the album. Richard's piano work is magnificent on the entire disc but it is especially brilliant here. On Masquerade, his sparkling piano and Bob Messenger's playful flute are as memorable as Karen's vocals. With these two men trading off on the break, it is another reminder of what great musicians the duo had working alongside them. Richard's skill as an arranger is often overlooked in light of his sister's contribution, but that's unfortunate. The man knows his stuff. The final vocal line by him punctuates the end of the song as the music trails off. As Karen and Richard were in their early to mid-twenties when they crafted this masterpiece, it becomes even more of an astounding work of art. Other producers and artists took notice. Although George Benson made it a huge hit three years later, this Leon Russell composition has been recorded by over 140 artists. With more than 60 of these versions being released in the 21st century, it is now a modern American standard.

Impressive packaging inside and out!
Photo from Snupps.

The next cut, Heather, is a beautiful piece of music that reinforced the popular view of the time that the duo was aiming for the older generation. Hard to argue with that. When word got out that it was originally the music found on a commercial for Geritol, a vitamin and mineral supplement marketed to the older generation, the jokes began to fly.  It's lovely, but it is out of place. In a rather strange way, Heather was ahead of its time as Richard would create this type of music years after Karen's passing. 

The single from Spain.

Although I enjoyed it at first, Jambalaya is a recording that hasn't worn well with me and plays like a novelty record. Had they wanted to include a country number, they would have been better served by selecting a brand new one to show off their versatility. And it could have been another single release to further promote the album.

I do like the song itself, however. The Blue Ridge Rangers, a band comprised only of John Fogerty (of Creedence Clearwater Revival) had a Top Twenty hit with it just a month before Karen and Richard's version was released. It's a stronger, fun, and more faithful interpretation of the Hank Williams classic. The tune is still being covered effectively today. Even actor Scott Porter's version on television's Hart of Dixie is energetic and very well made. 

Here on Now & Then, Karen sings Jambalaya well enough, Bob Messenger's flute solo is great, and the steel guitar is an expected touch, but all the pieces just doesn't come together. I'm sure I'm in the minority. Fans just loved it in Japan and adored it in the United Kingdom. Released as a single in those countries and others, Jambalaya seems to make many greatest hit compilations year after year. 

The "Now" side of the concept album closes with I Can't Make Music, another solid Randy Edelman song. The ballad falls in the vein of the previous album's Road Ode and even Goodbye to Love with its lyrics of regret and desperation. The arrangement of a mournful harmonica against organ flourishes adds to the drama and melancholy. Often overlooked, I find the song to be very good, a hidden gem that makes more of an impact with the passing of time.

Thanks to Chris May and the A&M Corner for this image.

If Side One is somewhat disjointed due to the variety of styles and effectiveness, Side Two's "Then" is a nearly flawless collection of 1960's era Top Ten American radio hits sandwiched perfectly between two variations of one of the Carpenters most loved records, the instantly iconic Yesterday Once More. 

A rare shot from 1973. Photographer unknown. 

The sole Richard and John Bettis composition here is the  emotional center, the very heart and soul, of the album. Yesterday Once More is quintessential Carpenters: warm, inviting, instantly distinctive but memorable with a slight nostalgic feel. Uplifting and bittersweet all at once, the longing in Karen's voice can't be hidden, but it is also has a sweeping chorus that begs the listener to happily sing along. Quite the accomplishment! The creation of yet another worldwide smash finally proved they were international artists of top caliber. 

Giving credit where it is due.

It's no mistake that the center panel of the interior tri-fold triumphantly announced this album was "Produced by Richard & Karen Carpenter". The oft told story is that Jack Daugherty, who was credited as producer on their previous albums, booked the studio time and the musicians, but that's where his efforts ended. This had to be a sore spot for Richard who brilliantly brought the concepts in his head to life on vinyl. From the beginning of their career, he was actively involved in writing and choosing songs, doing the arrangement and orchestration, playing, and generally putting the duo's whole sound together. Beginning with this collection, the producer credit would change, marking a new era in their career.  

I've often wondered when Karen realized she was a world class vocalist, but has Richard ever come to the realization that his own work is that of a genius? I'm hopeful one day others will come to this conclusion and be as kind to him as they now are to Karen. 

Richard and Karen had many reasons to smile
with the world's reception to this album.

If you love the Oldies medley, you have the duo's constant touring and relentless schedule to thank. When time for album five arrived, Richard had little time to look for songs let alone write them. Thinking creatively, he drew upon the idea they just used during their recent concerts. Playing songs they loved from their teen years, Karen and Richard were surprised by the great response to them. This shouldn't have been too much of a shock as America was in the midst of an oldies revival. He decided on the notion to split the disc into two, starting with contemporary songs of various types for the first side while keeping the oldies medley for the other. 

Eight oldies! Each much too short!

One of the best photos ever taken of Richard.

When I first turned over the album, I couldn't believe the number of huge hits found on the second half. I was excited as I knew all of them but Da Doo Ron Ron. As Side Two's opening classic winds down, a cover of The Beach Boys' Fun, Fun, Fun takes off with an engine roar and a flashy guitar- and with that beginning, the song and the entire medley never loses steam. Richard's vocal is assured and right up front. The last twenty seconds or so highlights his excellent falsetto work, something he would put to great use during their live performances. 

In their early days, Richard often remarked that his influences were the Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Burt Bacharach (and sometimes he'd also mention the BeeGees.) We know Ticket to Ride launched their career, serving them well as a first release, but I truly wish they'd covered Brian Wilson's beautiful The Warmth of the Sun. Can't you hear Karen on it? Maybe one day, Richard will finally release that duet of them with John Denver on Good Vibrations. The background vocals are particularly great. (Surprisingly, the song is paired with Comin' Thru the Rye, whose lyrics and meaning are rather surprising.) 

At the conclusion of Fun (x3), when Tony Peluso's alter ego disc jockey comes in, it provides a "Wow!" moment that pays off- for the first fifty listens or so. It's a bold creative choice reflecting all the others Richard made through the years. I was instantly won over by it. Decades later, I love having this piece of Tony's personality on record, but sometimes his shtick becomes a rather ill-fated gimmick. That said, it is a small price to pay for such a great medley.

The money was in the basement.
Her peers couldn't compare.

Karen comes in after this surprise with her only plaintive ballad on the medley, and because of this, the medley is all the stronger. The Skeeter Davis hit "The End of the World" suits her perfectly. In typical teen style of the era, the sun will never shine again as her boyfriend's gone away. Her last note of the song is one that makes you appreciate her vocal prowess. It's way down on the scale and lasts as long as can be, but Karen never once loses her power, tone, or control. Not one of her contemporaries could do what she just did. I remember being in the car and rewinding the tape of it over and over just to hear her sing it again. And again and again. 

Whether or not it's an intentional but loving jab at the highs and lows of adolescent emotion, Karen leaves yesterday behind and shifts into high gear with Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home). It's a blast! The girl group sound fits them extremely well. Mixing all those layered background vocals with a very hot saxophone and guitar, Richard creates his own "Wall of Sound", one easily on par with the work of famous producer Phil Spector and his original version of this song with The Crystals. 

On the 8-Track version of Now & Then, this song is split between tracks, so the song ends with an even lengthier guitar solo by Tony Peluso. (You can listen to it here before it disappears.) 

Just a side note: Having your ficticious DJ mention The Crystals when introducing your remake of their song was a gracious and generous thing to do. Richard and Karen had great respect for the artists who came before them. Even though they were some of the biggest music stars at this point in time, they certainly showed their appreciation by this very classy move.

Deadman's Curve may be the weakest in the medley due to its spoken segments, but it's still more than credible and a whole lot of fun! Better yet, this Jan and Dean tune sets up the next song brilliantly. 

Fans knew early on she had
the voice of an angel.

What can I say about Johnny Angel? The faithful but improved rendition of this sweetly charming Number One hit by Shelly Fabreres is just perfect in Karen's hands. Her velvety rich voice shines but is also light as air on the opening lines that repeat the title. A musical parfait of pure delight. The intro demanded repeated listens from the very first time. Not only does this selection fit the medley well, it is also one of many testaments to Richard's ability in choosing compositions which would best serve Karen's voice.

The last song where Richard takes the lead is also the one with his strongest performance: The Night Has A Thousand Eyes. The crisp, clean, and confident read matches well with his snappy true-to-the-era arrangement, complete with some of Karen's most effective background work. I loved - just loved- this recording upon the very first listen, and it still impresses me to this day. Reminds me of his earlier I Kept on Loving You from the Close to You album. 
Unfortunately, this great piece would be the last one to predominately feature Richard's vocals aside from his future solo work. It's a shame! On these songs, he's clearly having a great time. You can hear it in his voice. It may be one of the unintended side effects of doing an album like this. Richard didn't have the time to overwork it or stress over it all, so here, he and Karen come off loose and joyful. For all the well deserved accolades from both fans and critics, that description is something that couldn't be said for the striking collection before it, A Song for You, or the album of new material  that would follow, the mesmerizingly beautiful Horizon.

Photos used in Billboard's ad for Now & Then.

It's difficult to label one remake as the favorite or best of the group, but the last two songs of the medley are strong contenders for the title. Over the years, Ruby and the Romantics provided great source material for Karen and Richard, initially with Hurting Each Other, then this album's Our Day Will Come, and later in their career with Your Baby Doesn't Love You AnymoreKaren's breezy, elegantly smooth interpretation and Richard's jazzy keyboards combined to make this one a fan favorite. 

Way back in 1973, if there was one remake I wanted to hear full length, this was it by a large margin. My only complaint with their version was I didn't want it to end. Our Day Will Come should have been the third single off the disc. Other fans felt the same way, as almost 45 years later, someone finally took it upon themselves to create a seamlessly expanded version of it. I must say, it's great, everything it should have been initially.

Even as I listened to the disc while writing this article, Our Day Will Come still sounds as if they'd recorded it only yesterday. Still fresh and contemporary. The lyrics and music have stood the test of time. Richard had good taste in music, but he wasn't the only one to recognize this song was a classic. Bobby Darin, Doris Day, Cliff Richard, Frank Valli and countless others also tried their hand at recording it. In the 1980's, Barry Gibb produced a great version for Dionne Warwick on her Heartbreaker album. Decades later, Amy Winehouse recorded the Bob Hillard tune without a trace of irony or parody. 

The Chiffons' great One Fine Day brings the radio show to the end, but not without the duo and their band in high energy mode. What a finale it is! Another blistering saxophone pierces Karen's girl group vocals, but she wails away just the same. Karen finishes this Carole King / Gerry Goffin song with one last "On, yeah!", not just as part of the song but as a triumphant shout celebrating a brilliantly done album.

The popularity of the single cemented
their career in the U.K. for decades to come.

A dreamlike reprise of Yesterday Once More bookends Side Two, pulling the concept together. I was left wanting more. A lot more. In those days of the LP, Side Two would be the one I played over and over again without skipping a single tune. 

The Billboard ad did a bit of (deserved) boasting.

After about a month of the album's release, Now & Then was in the top five of the American music sales charts, peaking at Number One on Cashbox and Number Two on Billboard. Back in America, their home country seemed to validate their creative decisions, but Now & Then was also a huge hit in Canada, overseas in Europe and the U.K., Australia, and Japan, peaking at numbers just as big or even higher. Make no mistake, Karen and Richard were big.

Being as popular as they were with huge sales to prove it, Now & Then could have easily become the Carpenters first double disc. Had they fleshed out the oldies with full length versions and added another side of current material, it could have been accomplished. No doubt Richard and Karen both had a long list of beloved songs they wanted to record, songs with arrangements already written in his head. He probably already knew exactly how he wanted to do them. They just never had the time.

Their grueling concert schedule made time off rare and left them with all too little studio time, extra time to plan for the future and give themselves badly needed rest. Did anyone around them have a plan for their career trajectory or were they all too busy enjoying the bundles of cash Karen and Richard put in their pockets? There was not even a single in the wings to be pulled as a third hit from the collection to give them some breathing room. How could Richard and Karen, their manager, and A&M Records executives overlook that? 

After Now & Then, things would be difficult
for both Karen and Richard.

There was no denying Karen and Richard were superstars all over the world. The album was a smash, and the awards started coming in. Could their star shine even brighter? Yes, and it would continue with the year's release of their first greatest hits album. In many ways, the peak of their career would be 1973. As they'd soon discover, something had to give. The pace and pressure were killing them.

Photographer unknown.

"Those old melodies still sound so good to me
as they melt the years away…"

Yes, these songs are terrific! Yes, the years do melt away when I hear Karen and Richard during their glory years. It's a vibrant, Kodak colored snapshot in time. Now & Then is filled with so many wonderful songs by distinctively American songwriters, highlighting the best of 60's Pop as well as introducing some new American standards. Karen and Richard sound great. Everyone involved is at the peak of their abilities. The collection is upbeat, optimistic, and just plain fun. The album rightly could have been titled Made in America! True to then President Richard Nixon's words, Karen and Richard were "Young America at its best". Why then do I rarely play this stellar effort?

The answer is the execution of the very concept behind the album. I need to be in just the right mood for the disc jockey banter or else I will, sadly, generally skip the disc. Instead, I'll pull out the Readers Digest compilation which features most all the songs of the medley but without Tony Peluso as disc jockey. Or listen to my own. 

After I finished my initial listen to the album, I couldn't wait to turn the vinyl over and hear it again! Of course, just like all the others, I'd play it as much as I could until next year's album came out. Boy, was I surprised a few months later when I'd discover a new single and album in my local record store- and a Greatest Hits one at that!
This is part of a continuing series of posts on the albums of Karen and Richard Carpenter. Below is the list of my initial reviews and then my "Revisited /Fresh Look" reviews a decade later. 

My Initial Reviews of the albums:

My Revisited / Fresh Look at the albums:

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