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Back in my youth there were certain very successful bands that it simply wasn't cool to like, especially if you regarded yourself as a rock fan. One such band was the American brother and sister act, the Carpenters, whose singles always made it into the charts due to their catchy tunes and the duo's undoubted talent. For several years during the Seventies, the Carpenters had chart success though it did come at a high cost. Richard developed an addiction to prescription drugs and Karen struggled with anorexia, a battle she sadly lost.
Like Abba, the Carpenters' music has recently been re-examined and declared worthy. Despite their lack of cool at the time they were playing, however, I strongly suspect that many record collections from the Seventies have a copy of Close to You tucked away somewhere.
They say one shouldn't judge a book by its cover and it's equally true of music CDs. The album cover, which replicates the original vinyl one, is very dated with Karen in her Laura Ashley style frock and badly styled long hair and Richard looking like a retro member of One Direction. Don't be fooled into thinking this album is totally naff though: the style is definitely of its time but the quality of Karen Carpenter's voice remains timeless.
The album kicks off with We've Only Just Begun which has a short and simple piano/flute intro before the remarkable voice of Karen Carpenter joins in turning this rather mediocre ballad about new love into something more special. If you can screen out the rather naff sounding backing and concentrate on the voice, it's possible to get a feel for exactly why the duo was so successful.
Love is Surrender is another little slice of Seventies kitsch offering a jazzy beat, lots of percussion and piano. Both Carpenters share vocals here with lots of harmonising in the choruses. This song is very reminiscent of lift music which washes over the listener and is forgotten the instant the lift doors open.
Maybe It's You was co-written by Richard Carpenter with John Bettis and I suspect Richard's understanding of his sister's vocal abilities played a part in its composition as it certainly plays to her strengths. Karen Carpenter had a rich, velvety contralto voice, pretty unusual in a female singer back then and still fairly uncommon today. The timbre of her voice was deeply resonant and she frequently began a musical phrase softly, building intensity as it developed. Forget the dated lyrics, dealing in a very schmaltzy way with love, and concentrate instead on the musical phraseology. It's superb.
Reason to Believe is a Tim Hardin folk song given a Carpenters makeover into a less folk, more country sound but with a more up-tempo pop overlay which would have stripped away all the emotion from the song if not for the integrity of Karen's voice. She carried the album then and listening to it some forty years on, she still carries it. All the arrangements on the album are courtesy of Richard Carpenter and, sadly, they haven't weathered the years quite as well as the singing.
Another classic to be Carpentered follows and it's that holy of holies, a Beatles song. Let's be fair, Help isn't one of Lennon and McCartney's best compositions but the Carpenters certainly don't bring anything new to the party here. In fact, they turn it from a so-so pop song into something very unmemorable involving lots of harmonising, almost choral sounding notes, keyboard and tambourines and with a keyboard solo midway through which wouldn't have given Jon Lord or Rick Wakeman any sleepless nights.
Close to You is probably the song which could most be regarded as the Carpenters' signature tune. It's a Burt Baccarach/Hal David composition and even the changing times can't disguise the quality of the songwriting. Personally, this song has never been a favourite of mine. It takes a far too saccharine view of love and completely lacks any real emotion. I get the feeling perhaps Karen Carpenter felt the same because she doesn't seem to put as much effort into the song as she does with some of the others.
A second Baccarach and David song follows, this time taking a less sugary look at love and dealing with the disillusionment of breakup. I'll Never Fall in Love Again is a wry take on a failed romance from a female perspective. The words are heartfelt and beautifully interpreted by Karen Carpenter and the upbeat rhythm of the backing takes some of the sting out of the lyrics. The arrangement is far more subtle and much less dated although still bearing the trademark harmonics of all the Carpenters songs.
Crescent Noon is the standout song on this album to my mind. It's a slow, melodic ballad and gives Karen Carpenter the perfect showcase for her superb voice so it's no surprise this is another song composed by her brother. Some of the notes she hits during the course of the song, especially those in the minor key, send shivers down the spine. The backing is kept subtle and subdued in the main with just a few strings and piano accompaniment, only swelling into choral harmonies during the choruses. I'd say this was one of Richard Carpenter's best compositions.
Another Richard Carpenter/John Bettis composition, Mr Guder, lets Karen to do her stuff whilst also allowing Richard to demonstrate his keyboard skills with a rather Bach sounding riff or two and a chorus which I suspect takes its inspiration from the Swingle Singers, an a capella group who specialised in vocal interpretations of Bach's music.
I Kept on Loving You puts Richard Carpenter as lead singer with Karen singing the harmonies and suffers somewhat in comparison with other songs on the album. This is another 1970s piece of muzak only fit to listen to whilst shopping or riding a lift.
The album ends with Another Song which gives Karen's voice full rein and allows her to show her range from softly sweet to full power. The song's intro is almost operatic in construction and ends abruptly before the song proper begins. Again, the arrangement suffers from an excess of the 1970s sound although Richard Carpenter has tried to inject the backing track with some more avant garde sounds from the era such as a rather disjointed musical interlude full of eastern elements but they sit rather incongruously here.
In summary, I'd have to say this album does not stand up well to the passage of time. There's no getting away from the fact that this is a very dated sound both musically and lyrically but the extraordinary quality of Karen Carpenter's voice shines through. I'm sure this would be appreciated by big fans of the Carpenters but for most people who merely want a flavour of what this duo was all about, I'd recommend getting a 'Best of' compilation and I guess most of the songs on this album wouldn't make the cut.
The album is currently selling for £4.38 with used copies available from 38p which, I'm afraid, is about what it's worth.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 We've Only Just Begun
2 Love Is Surrender
3 Maybe It's You
4 Reason To Believe
6 (They Long To Be) Close To You
7 Baby It's You
8 I'll Never Fall In Love Again
9 Crescent Noon
10 Mr Guder
11 I Kept On Loving You
12 Another Song