by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
I know what you’re thinking. “Really? A Discog Fever column on Carpenters?” Yes. Why? First of all, I genuinely think they’re great, which may sound weird coming from a reviewer who also listens to music like King Crimson, Nine Inch Nails, Van Halen, Queens of the Stone Age, and Nirvana on a regular basis and has also written Discog Fever columns on the Clash, Led Zeppelin, and Roxy Music, but my music tastes are eclectic enough to include all kinds of genres from pop and punk and R&B to hard rock and country and jazz, even easy listening and soft-rock, and Richard and Karen Carpenter, at their best, were masters of the latter form in the ‘70s. Secondly, there’s that voice. Oh, that voice! Nobody else in the rock era has a voice quite like the late Karen Carpenter had (just listen to her performance on “Only Yesterday” as just one perfect example of the warmth of her voice and her emotive but never overwrought delivery), and it’s a fairly safe bet that we’ll never see another singer quite like her ever again. Lastly, the duo is fairly historically significant, even if they don’t get a whole lot of credit for it: aside from their impressive run of twenty Top 40 hits (a dozen of them Top Ten hits) and numerous gold albums and their status as the most successful duo in pop/rock history next to Hall & Oates and the Everly Brothers, Karen Carpenter was the first prominent female drummer to be found in a mainstream pop/rock band. (There were certainly female drummers before her, namely the Velvet Underground’s Maureen Tucker, but none who were nearly as visible as Karen would become.) Richard was also a remarkably clever arranger, and his left-field decision to have Tony Peluso add a blistering guitar solo to the otherwise soft ballad “Goodbye to Love” would prove to be incredibly groundbreaking. The duo also served as a launching pad for John Bettis, Richard’s songwriting partner, who would go on in the ‘80s to co-write an additional string of Top 40 hits for other artists, a list that includes the Pointer Sisters’ “Slow Hand,” Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Madonna’s “Crazy for You.” (Fun trivia: he’d also co-write the unforgettable theme song to Growing Pains, “As Long As We’ve Got Each Other.”) Their singles and albums may not have always been terribly hip and could occasionally be much too saccharine, but they nonetheless made a lot of great and unfairly-maligned music along the way, so let’s walk you through their catalog and separate the good from the bad …
Offering (1969, A&M; re-issued with different packaging in late 1970 by A&M as Ticket to Ride)
It bombed, but it’s not hard to see why: the strange and somber album cover certainly didn’t make the record – or the brand-new duo behind it, for that matter – look all that fun. It was wisely re-issued the following year after the massive success of Close to You with an entirely new title and album art, which was carried over to all future LP and CD reissues of the album. Offering has consequently become a very rare and expensive collector’s item, so if you’re ever lucky enough to stumble upon a copy, snatch it up while you can. As far as the music goes, this barely resembles any of the albums that would follow it. For starters, it’s far more self-contained, containing ten originals (Richard and John have sadly yet to fully blossom as songwriters at this point, however) and featuring only Karen on drums, while the two siblings share vocals evenly. Secondly, it’s a fairly schizophrenic record, and one that even saunters on occasion into flower-power pop. It opens with a minute-long choral “Invocation” and closes with a forty-second choral “Benediction,” while the first proper song, the Richard-sung tune “Your Wonderful Parade” begins with a long intro from a circus emcee before segueing into a song that sounds more like a Cowsills or Spanky and the Gang tune. The harpsichord-heavy “What’s the Use” will remind you of the Partridge Family, while “Don’t Be Afraid” would fit in effortlessly on a Bobby Sherman record. “All I Can Do,” on the other hand, is easily the most heavily jazz-tinged song the duo would ever cut. Alongside these are ill-advised covers of the ‘60s folk-rock standard “Get Together” and Buffalo Springfield’s “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing.” But there are a few cuts that do foreshadow the duo’s later albums, including the fine ballads “Someday” and “All of My Life,” and the dramatically-slowed-down cover of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” is quite creative and lovely, even if it doesn’t come anywhere close to equaling the original. This isn’t nearly as good as most of the albums that would follow it so you’re not likely to revisit it all that often, but it is rather fascinating.
Close to You (1970, A&M)
The album that put the brother-sister duo on the map, Close to You is a remarkably more confident and consistent outing than the duo’s debut, and it yielded two massive Top Ten hits in the Paul Williams-and-Roger Nichols-penned “We’ve Only Just Begun” and the Burt Bacharach-and-Hal David-penned Number One smash “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” [The full-length version included here of the latter song is even more fun to listen to than the single version, boasting a very deceptive fake ending that you’re not likely to see coming unless you have the volume cranked up high enough to make out the faint hi-hat beats that serve as its count-in.] The title cut isn’t the only Bacharach song here, as the duo also covers “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Baby It’s You.” The duo also covers the Beatles again (“Help!”), as well as Tim Hardin (“Reason to Believe”), but those two cuts pale quite a bit next to the more obscure Ralph Carmichael-penned sunny stomp of “Love Is Surrender” and the Richard-sung Williams/Nichols tune “I Kept on Loving You,” both of which are extremely catchy tunes (especially for being non-singles). Richard’s own originals still pale next to the outside material, but he and Bettis are showing some signs of improvement, “Crescent Noon” and “Mr. Guder” being fine compositions, while their original album-closing mini-suite “Another Song” is an amazing showcase for the duo’s instrumental abilities, from Richard’s keyboard work to Karen’s always-underappreciated drumming.
Carpenters (1971, A&M)
Originally packaged in a lovely, embossed, fold-open envelope-styled jacket, the duo’s third album is easily their best yet. There are three major hits included here: the lovely piano ballad “Rainy Days and Mondays” (arguably the greatest song Paul Williams and Roger Nichols ever wrote together), brilliantly arranged by Richard (the harmonica and saxophone are both especially nice touches), the Leon Russell/Bonnie Bramlett-penned groupie-themed “Superstar” and “For All We Know” (co-written by Bread band members Robb Royer and James Griffin under pen names). What makes this album so solid, though, is the consistency of the other material included here. The Williams/Nichols-penned “Let Me Be the One” very much should have been a single in its own right (and Richard himself has admitted so in later years), while the five-and-a-half-minute medley of Bacharach/David tunes is enormously fun and impressively arranged. The album also sports the catchiest set of Carpenter/Bettis originals to date as well; “Saturday” and “Druscilla Penny” are quick throwaways (the former clocks in at well under two minutes), but they’re both incredibly addictive, while the ballad “One Love” is simply gorgeous. This disc is truly a must-own for fans of the duo.
A Song for You (1972, A&M)
Every bit as solid as its predecessor, the duo’s fourth album was a real monster, yielding not three, not four, but five singles that either made the Top Ten or just barely missed it. The Number One hit “Top of the World” (the first hit single from the duo to be penned by Carpenter and Bettis) is here (though the song was remixed for single releases and lacks some of the instrumental touches added for the radio version), as are the Carole King cover “It’s Going to Take Some Time” (which originally appeared on her album Music), the devastatingly powerful cover of Ruby & the Romantics’ “Hurting Each Other” (easily one of the greatest covers Richard and Karen ever cut; Richard’s new arrangement is ingenious), the underrated Paul Williams/Roger Nichols tune “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” and the Carpenter/Bettis original “Goodbye to Love,” a song that boasts an old-fashioned melody that seems taken straight out of some old silver-screen standard yet also incongruously cleverly works in an unexpected distorted-guitar solo, a gimmick which would help give birth to the “power ballad.” The album’s title track may stand as the definitive version of the much-covered Leon Russell-penned tune, while the pretty “Crystal Lullaby” and “Road Ode” are two of the finest Carpenter/Bettis originals yet. It’s not quite a perfect album (the inclusion of the brief-but-jokey “Intermission” was a somewhat dubious idea, and “Bless the Beasts and Children” is just too sappy a song to fit in on what is otherwise a relatively cool album), but you could make a strong case for this disc being the duo’s finest hour.
Now and Then (1973, A&M)
Comprised almost entirely of covers, Now and Then didn’t exactly help the duo’s image any, and for two major reasons. First, nearly the album’s entire second side is taken up by a medley of early ‘60s tunes like “Johnny Angel” and “The End of the World.” The medley is perfectly pleasant, but the lengthy exercise in nostalgia makes the duo seem a little too old-fashioned and hesitant to evolve. Secondly, the choice of covers is a little ill-advised. Karen does a very lovely job of singing both Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade” and the Hank Williams standard “Jambalaya (on the Bayou),” but the arrangements are way, way too Muzak-like to sound the least bit hip (particularly for a duo that had just silenced some of their critics a year earlier by incorporating a heated guitar solo into “Goodbye to Love”), and the duo misfires wildly by choosing to cover the Sesame Street song “Sing,” complete with children’s choir. (It would go on to be a Top Ten hit for the duo, but artistically speaking, it was a really dubious move and the duo would never quite live that one down.) The album’s biggest draw is the lone new tune here, the excellent Richard Carpenter/John Bettis original “Yesterday Once More.” Despite the blatant nostalgia of the lyric, the melody is downright brilliant and the chorus impossible to get out of your head, and it’s certainly one of the best tunes Richard and John ever wrote. But that song is also easily obtainable on any number of compilations and hits packages, so this disc, while not terrible, isn’t terribly essential, either, and if you already own a copy of “Yesterday Once More,” you can safely skip this album without missing out on anything particularly special.
Horizon (1975, A&M)
A far, far hipper outing than its predecessor, Horizon does feature another ‘60s cover in the duo’s remake of the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” but it’s a fun one (partly due to Karen’s animated drumming on the cut) and superior to any of the covers from Now and Then, and the single would also go to Number One, becoming one of the few songs of the entire rock era to be taken to Number One by two different acts. Thankfully, the only other covers here are much more modern, and the duo does a particularly fine job with their version of the Neil Sedaka song “Solitaire.” The album also boasts a very first-rate set of originals, highlighted by the Top Ten hit “Only Yesterday,” arguably the finest song Richard Carpenter and John Bettis have ever written, and possibly even the best single Richard and Karen ever made, boasting some incredible engineering work (this is a fun, fun single to listen to through headphones) and an absolutely flawless arrangement and production job. Nearly every bit as good is “Happy,” a should-have-been-single penned by Carpenters guitarist Tony Peluso that sounds a heck of a lot more modern and contemporary than most of the duo’s other output. (With more songs like “Happy” in their repertoire, it’s likely that Richard and Karen would have been taken much more seriously by music critics.) Whether or not this is their best album is certainly up for debate – Carpenters and A Song for You may actually be slightly more consistent in terms of the songwriting – but very rarely has the duo ever sounded more fearless on record in terms of their willingness to sound contemporary and push themselves creatively, and it truly is a shame that the duo didn’t permanently continue down this path in later years. Their image and legacy certainly would have suffered less for it.
A Kind of Hush (1976, A&M)
Another ill-advised career move, A Kind of Hush isn’t exactly a train wreck (although “Goofus” might be their worst moment on record and their version of “Can’t Smile Without You” is so overly saccharine and lifeless that it makes Barry Manilow’s version sound like hard rock in comparison), but everything about it – from the track selection to the cheesy album packaging – just seems painfully regressive after the relatively hip and forward-looking Horizon and very unlikely to silence any of the critics who accused the duo of being too hokey or old-fashioned. For starters, there’s nothing on here even half as contemporary-sounding and boundary-pushing as “Only Yesterday” or “Happy” from the prior album. Secondly, the duo opens the disc with yet another ‘60s oldie-but-goodie [the Herman’s Hermits’ tune “There’s a Kind of Hush (All Over the World)”] – and closes the disc with still another (Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”), but unlike their lively, fairly-rocking (at least by Richard and Karen’s standards, anyway) take on “Please Mr. Postman” from Horizon before it, the arrangement and production of both songs are much too schmaltzy and make the cuts sound less like new studio concoctions and more like rejected outtakes from Now and Then from three years earlier. The only truly great moment here is the Carpenter-Bettis original “I Need to Be in Love”; while the production is a tad sappy and the song is much too akin to the ballads from Carpenters and A Song for You to actually sound like the sort of record the duo should have been putting out in 1976, it’s still a great piece of songwriting, and Karen’s vocal on the cut is one of the most impassioned performances of her career. This is easily the worst of the duo’s ‘70s albums.
Passage (1977, A&M)
The Carpenters brand was pretty damaged as a result of A Kind of Hush, and this album consequently sold poorly and has become one of the duo’s most forgotten albums, but Passage is easily one of the most underrated – as well as one of the most contemporary-sounding – Carpenters albums, and this is exactly the kind of album the duo should have been making more of in the late ‘70s. There are still covers here, of course, but they’re all wisely-chosen or cleverly handled: the duo tackles the calypso standard “Man Smart, Woman Smarter,” made famous by Harry Belafonte, but the duo instead models their own arrangement after Robert Palmer’s version (from Some People Can Do What They Like). They also do a fun, percussive cover of “Sweet, Sweet Smile” by future country-pop star Juice Newton and scored a minor Top 40 hit with a very unlikely, grandiose, orchestra-laden cover of “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” by the now-obscure ‘70s rock band Klaatu, who briefly rose to notoriety after rumors that they were actually the Beatles in disguise. The duo also scored a second Top 40 hit from the album with the pleasant, sophisticated, modern adult-contemporary pop of “All You Get from Love Is a Love Song,” which might boast the coolest intro of any Carpenters single with its gently swaying percussion.
Made in America (1981, A&M)
Karen and Richard ended the ‘70s on a positive note – artistically, anyway – with Passage, but its low sales caused the duo to take a near-four-year break, during which they released only a holiday album and a non-LP single. Karen also recorded a solo disc during this period, but A&M cancelled its release out of fears from label brass – as well as Richard – that its soft-rock and lite-disco stylings (as well as its mildly sensual – but still wildly innocuous by any standard other than past Carpenters albums – lyrical content) was just too different and that it might irreparably damage the Carpenters’ image. So it’s particularly ironic that the duo’s first outing of the Eighties was almost every bit as incredibly regressive as A Kind of Hush, and not just because of the painfully un-hip album cover. (Album packaging was always the duo’s Achilles heel.) To start with, there’s yet another ‘60s cover, this time of the Marvelettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789,” which comes off as little more than an attempt to repeat the success of their cover of “Please Mr. Postman,” but it doesn’t work at all; the arrangement of the Motown oldie is so saccharine and soft that it’s not even a tenth as fun as their remake of “Postman” was. There’s also the inclusion of a previously non-LP single from 1978 (“I Believe You”) that seems a tad too out of date to perfectly fit in here. Even the album’s opening cut, the countrified “Those Good Old Dreams,” is helplessly backwards-looking, and you can’t help but wonder right away why the duo could never quite fully shake its penchant for nostalgia. Still, about half the album is either decent or great, though it’s telling that the moments that work the strongest are the ones where the duo makes the greatest effort to actually sound contemporary, be it the gentle synth-pop of “(Want You) Back in My Life Again” or the sophisticated adult-contemporary pop of “Touch Me When We’re Dancing.”
Voice of the Heart (1983, A&M)
This compilation of sorts, released after Karen Carpenter’s tragic and untimely death, features a selection of both previously unreleased cuts from the duo’s archives and songs Richard and Karen were working on just prior to her passing. The album sounds great, and it never sounds anywhere near as regressive or as dated as Made in America did (even if Richard Carpenter has unfortunately slapped a choir onto six of the ten cuts here, which is seldom ever a good idea unless you’re cutting a gospel song or a Christmas record) and it’s also a better and more pleasing listen than A Kind of Hush. Unfortunately, as pleasant as the album sounds, it also all sounds very much like leftovers, if only because there just aren’t nearly as many memorable melodies or obvious singles here as usual; the jazzy rendition of Paul Williams’ “Ordinary Fool” is worth hearing, but not much else here really grabs you. The album also suffers from an overabundance of saccharine ballads. (Only “Prime Time Love” and “Sailing on the Tide” could possibly qualify as being up-tempo, but even that would be a stretch.) Because of that, unlike Horizon or Passage, it’s hard to actually call this album cool in any way. You consequently start to wonder after a while if the duo would have been stuck in this same mode for the remainder of the decade if Karen hadn’t passed away or if their brand of soft-pop might have evolved enough to make something as muscular and legitimately contemporary-sounding as Anne Murray’s surprisingly good late-‘80s single “Now and Forever (You and Me).”
Lovelines (1989, A&M)
This second posthumous effort from the duo is a hodgepodge collection of previously unreleased studio recordings meant for other projects, including four cuts from the then-still-unreleased solo album from Karen (which eventually saw the light of day in 1996). Like Voice of the Heart before it, it’s pleasant but not essential, and there are no knockouts, but nothing is bad, either, and it makes for a more appealing album overall than A Kind of Hush or Now and Then, even if there’s no “I Need to Be in Love” or “Yesterday Once More” here to leave your jaw hanging. The best and most intriguing of the outtakes here from the duo are the unusually sultry “Slow Dance,” the Made in America outtake “The Uninvited Guest,” “You’re the One,” and a great cover of the pop standard “When I Fall in Love” (recorded for a television special) that benefits from Karen’s ever-warm voice and suggests that the duo might have had a better-than-the-norm standards album in them. But, like Voice of the Heart, there are no noticeably up-tempo songs from the duo here, and you start to wonder after a while just how little up-tempo material the duo recorded in its post-Passage years. The only songs here that provide any sort of change of pace at all are those from Karen’s aborted solo album, like the disco-tinged sides “Lovelines” and the fine “If We Try” (both penned by Rod Temperton, who was responsible for writing countless dancefloor classics from “Boogie Nights,” “Stomp,” and “Give Me the Night” to “Rock with You,” “Off the Wall,” and “Thriller”) and the catchy and mildly soulful lite-disco of “If I Had You.” It’s a better posthumous outing than Voice of the Heart – and it’s also a more pleasing listen overall than Made in America, even if it lacks a knockout single – but it’s more of a reasonably good curio piece than a vital listen, and if you own Karen’s solo disc, you already own most of the best songs here.
As Time Goes By (2004, A&M)
Simply put, this is one posthumous album too many. Most of the cuts here are actually previously-unreleased audio recordings (four of them extended medleys) of performances from television specials – they’re great to have if you’re a diehard fan, but it’s hard to imagine more casual fans being interested in these. Of the studio outtakes and demos here, some of the inclusions are a bit dubious (after the negative press the duo got from covering “Sing” from Sesame Street, why on earth would they turn around and cover “The Rainbow Connection”?), but “Leave Yesterday Behind” is a surprisingly good studio outtake (especially for one that had stayed in the vaults for as long as it did). It’s sporadically intriguing, but overall, this just reeks of being a cash-in.
As far as single-disc packages go, The Singles 1969-1981 is pretty solid; it’s missing some minor Top 40 hits (“Solitaire,” “There’s a Kind of Hush,” “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”) that arguably should have been included in place of lesser hits like “Ticket to Ride,” “Those Good Old Dreams,” and “I Believe You,” but it’s a mostly well-crafted full-career overview. The double-disc package Yesterday Once More has got all of the Top 40 hits except for “Solitaire” and also adds a well-chosen selection of lesser singles and album cuts, including the underrated sides “Sweet, Sweet Smile” and “(Want You) Back in My Life Again).”
I’ve avoided covering holiday albums in previous editions of this column, but it’d almost be a crime not to mention the two Carpenters Christmas albums, 1978’s Christmas Portrait and 1984’s An Old-Fashioned Christmas. While their very nature means that you’ll seldom, if ever, listen to these discs outside of the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, few pop/rock bands of the ‘70s or ‘80s have ever made more warm and magical Christmas albums than Richard and Karen. Karen’s voice is perfect for albums of this nature, and Richard’s arrangements invoke the Christmas season in ways that few other pop/rock holiday albums have proven capable of capturing. Of the two discs, the former is the one that’s the more essential and the one that boasts the most cuts that have become mainstays on radio around the holiday season.