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Class ?

Main Category: Lush Pop
Also applicable: Folk Rock
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Carpenters fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Carpenters fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Real introduction, as in all other cases, will be put forward only after all the actual reviews have been written. But on a preliminary note, let me just state it here that, although I do tend to jeer at America's Sludgiest Soft-Pop performers of all time on other pages, I don't, in fact, hate the Carpenters. I can hardly sit through any one Carpenters album in one sitting, of course, but then again, no normal human being could do likewise. But that doesn't mean that the Carpenters weren't a) at least somewhat talented - hey, it's not often you find a girl in a pop duet actually playing drums, for Chrissake! - and b) completely adequate, which is one of my main criteria for judging music. They never actually pretended that their music was something more than just innocent, inoffensive ear-candy for grandpas and housewives - and when you set your expectations to that level, they turn out to be the best in the genre. Now welcome onto the bashing.



Year Of Release: 1969
Overall rating =

Pretty brass, luscious violins and... WHO LET A WOMAN BEHIND THE DRUMKIT? WHAT IS THIS, FREE SOCIETY???

Best song: EVE

Track listing: 1) Invocation; 2) Your Wonderful Parade; 3) Someday; 4) Get Together; 5) All Of My Life; 6) Turn Away; 7) Ticket To Ride; 8) Don't Be Afraid; 9) What's The Use; 10) All I Can Do; 11) Eve; 12) Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing; 13) Benediction.

Released in late 1969 with the original title Offering - presumably meaning to placate the angry (and still hungry) Spirit of Altamont. Offerings are temporary measures, though, and once the ominous biker deity had satisfied its hunger, the record was consequently re-released and this time renamed in accordance with the album's hit single (which, while we're at it, wasn't really much of a hit, not when taken in comparison with all that followed). Hence the occasional confusion. Glad to have helped you out. No need to say thank you.

Oh! As a matter of fact, it's a pretty rotten record, and even if the metaphysical idea of the Carpenters coincides with your metaphysical understanding of good music, chances are Ticket To Ride won't find itself in your Top 5 anyway. See, in 1969, Richard and Karen had "only just begun". They didn't have any particular style other than some general ideas about how to write mainstreamish material that they probably got from watching sitcoms and participating in local talent shows. (Not that I'm accusing them of lack of proper perspective; I'm just trying to guess the primary area where their musical interests were located). In particular, they hadn't yet begun developing that cute "boppy" style of theirs that would save some of the later albums from utter artistic despair. No, in 1969, if a Carpenters song was to be "boppy", the "boppiness" was understood as the equivalent of a lightweight "childish ditty for adults" (one of the fakest genres in the world), likely to be performed around Christmas time by all the Ipana-smiled members of the happy God-loving family unit.

A typical example is the completely unbearable 'Your Wonderful Parade', a song that I'm pretty sure the duet themselves must have been ashamed of in retrospect. The only good thing I can say about it is that it's got a funny - and pretty complex - martial drum part, with Karen giving it her all. (Isn't it somewhat symbolic, actually, that the first song on the first Carpenters album mainly presents Karen as the drummer and only very slightly as a singer? Well, the lady had always been pretty modest). Otherwise, it's a simplistic melodic backbone of about two or three vertebrae, covered by layer upon layer of the sweetest sugar to have been ever produced that side of the Cuban Republic.

Maybe the sad truth about this album can be stated this way: the Carpenters arrived on the scene a tiny bit too early. They were so much a product of the Seventies that even the tiniest traces of the "hippie culture" that can be spotted on Ticket To Ride, due to its arrival several months after Woodstock, corrode them stronger than water corrodes the Wicked Witch of the West. Richard himself used to share ironic comments on the garments they were clad in on the original Offering release, but it's not just the entourage, of course. Take their version of Chet Powers' 'Get Together', for instance, and compare it with the Jefferson Airplane performance of the same song in 1966. The latter was stately, romantic folk-rock, not exactly a highlight but still doing alright in the company of its brothers and sisters. Here, it's ridiculously dated, completely unmemorable "hippie-pop" that beats everything they released afterwards in terms of tepidness. A two-year old, given the proper environment, would cringe at hearing them cooing 'love one another right now', and I have the unluck to be older than that - eeeeeww!

No wonder the album didn't make much of an impact - the tastes of the American public, dubious as they were even then, weren't prepared for this hopeless mix of Grandma's cultural values with universal love declarations. Plus, the album is bookmarked by 'Invocation' and 'Benediction' - two pieces of Karen singing gospel-style accapella with a lot of self-overdubbing, which shows off the duo's obvious interest in the nascent art-rock movement. This only confuses matters more. Is this serious artistry or fluff? Show your colours!

That said, I do actually like some of the Karen's "solo-oriented" performances. They're all mushy and formless; if projecting her deep, soft voice onto a specially designated location inside your soul turns out to be impossible, just forget about it. But there are a few songs on here which, in my eyes, are saved through that power and sonic beauty alone - never mind structure, originality, or arrangement. It is, of course, somewhat disappointing to realize that on an album so chock-full of original compositions (courtesy of Richard mainly, I guess) the best song happens to be the title track: Karen's slowed-down, "balladeer-ized" version of the classic Beatles pop-rocker. Well, on the other hand, the worst Beatles song given the worst possible arrangement is still better than the best Carpenters song, so this shouldn't be too discouraging. Of course, any traces of irony and bitter humour in the original Lennon-sung version are completely erased, but it's a lucky thing Karen's got this monster convincing force in her, making you actually care for the final result. At any rate, I am certainly better inclined towards her interpretation of the song than towards Sinatra's 'Something'.

It's nice (although not really a huge relief) to know that at this point at least, they display quite a good taste in covers - the other one is Buffalo Springfield's 'Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing', somewhat symbolic in that it shows they weren't totally "out of it"; it's one thing to cover the Beatles (which everyone was doing, regardless of mainstream, anti-establishment, or underground orientation) and another thing to cover the quintessential "hippie-folk" ensemble. A decent interpretation, too, quite suitable for Richard and Karen's singing duo, although this time quite faithful to the original and thus hardly adding anything new (or even worth hearing).

Out of the original compositions, a minor highlight is 'Someday', with a gorgeous vocal part from Karen (unfortunately, spoilt by abysmally generic orchestration - when those strings make their 'whoosh!' out of nowhere, brutally commanding your heart to beat faster and your tear glands to work twice as effectively, my spoilt organism starts a counter-rebellion, forcing me to lower the volume - God forbid anyone nearby actually start paying attention to what it is I'm listening to!). The best song, I think, is 'Eve', which somehow manages to incorporate a few poppy vocal hooks into the usual "swamp of soul" (although the other original, 'All Of My Life', can't be saved by any type of words - I'm one of the few people in the world to believe that the Carpenters could produce substantive melodies, but this song has less melody in it than a motorboat's grumble). 'Eve', on the other hand, is more collected and sort of "vivacious" despite the overall tragic feel. Give it just another whiff of catchiness and you're already presaging some of those classy mid-Seventies ABBA ballads.

Everything else is either forgettable or somehow misguided: even the tiny bits of experimentation, like the already mentioned accappella snippets or the light jazz toying on 'All I Can Do', are so short it's almost like they were thrown in at the last minute in the status of "water-treading" elements. That said, I can't exclude that for some people Ticket To Ride might have a particular appeal - as the earliest, pre-fab stage of the Carpenters, not at all loaded with huge mammoth hits, somewhat less formulaic than the "major" albums, etc., etc. This is all, of course, provided these people actually think the Carpenters had such a huge load of talent they could succeed in something else than basic formula.



Year Of Release: 1970

"Objective" critics (i.e. 'honest' critics - as opposed to the Rolling Stone-type conventional muckers) usually consider this the Carpenters' finest hour, but I tend to doubt that issue. I guess it has to do with the fact that Close To You was the moment of the big breakthrough for the duo: the title track was a major hit single, actually, it was the biggest commercial success the Carpenters ever had. (By the way, let us debunk one of the pouplar myths in existence - the Carpenters were a major commercial factor on the American and international market in the early Seventies, but nowhere near the top; Elton John, for instance, really beat them in that respect. Don't believe me? 'Close To You' was the band's only single to enter the Top 10 singles of the year, whereas Elton had about five or six of these).

Anway, the fact that this album includes 'Close To You' and its follow-up, the infamous 'We've Only Just Begun', usually suffices to put Close To You on a pedestal. But for me, this record seems far more conventional and less engaging than its follow-up. Even so, it is a huge improvement over the childish jello of their debut. In fact, we can now distinguish between the good half of the album and the crap - which means, criticize the record instead of simply dismissing it on first listen. Both Richard and Karen seem more mature and serious on here. They still can't 'bop' with enough sincerity, though: the Richard'sung 'I Kept On Loving You' is arguably the worst thing on the album, pure bubblegum with wasted lyrics and a stupid repetitive melody, and 'Love Is Surrender' is only marginally better, being somewhat redeemed by Karen's astute modelling of her voice in the process.

The good news is that they manage to make the "notorious covers" sound excellent. Another take on a Beatles song is a victory for Karen - of course, hoping to embetter 'Help!' would be a silly thing, but a little twist of the arrangement with a near-complete preservation of the angst and disturbance contained therein makes the song completely listenable; it's at least better than rearranging 'Ticket To Ride' as a soft-pop ballad. And there's also a wonderful rendition of Tim Hardin's 'Reason To Believe' - shamefully, I haven't heard the original, but both this version and Rod Stewart's are emotionally overcharged. They roooole.

There are some experiments with sound, too: 'Another Song', for instance, is so far the closest thing to a, well, ahem, 'rock-influenced' song they had managed, with a cute little 'jam' ending it up. A real art-rock number? Possibly, with several different sections including some accapella singing, some flutes, some wah-wah guitars, and some overdriven drumming from Karen - she almost tries to pull a Keith Moon, I'd swear. I wonder if it was that drumming that prompted Mike O'Hara to willingly concede that 'Yes, Karen did have talent...'?

Still, the 'pure pop' originals and the less notorious covers don't go any place special; maybe 'Mr Guder' (a song supposedly written about Richard's former musical boss) is okay, with a little tension helping it to go round, but I could easily live without everything else. Yes, the two hit singles included: relatively solid as they are, they could have easily been replaced by just about any other song. Just your usual slow-paced orchestrated radio-friendly piano pop; typical for the Carpenters, yes, but certainly not the best thing to be expected from them. And their version of 'Baby It's You' is very painful for me to listen to - since it completely eradicates my theory that arrangement is normally not as important as the actual melody. It brings memories of the upbeat, rockin' Beatles version, which is still as great as the first time I heard it. Ah, hell, maybe I just don't have an ear for slow-paced orchestrated radio-friendly piano pop.

Anyway, apart from 'I Kept On Loving You', none of these songs really make me want to go to the bathroom, so I guess two and a half stars ought to do this record justice. But let's move on to the culmination, shall we?



Year Of Release: 1971

The real artistic breakthrough for the Carpenters (in case someone doesn't regard that as an oxymoron) happened here - this album's consistently enjoyable for anybody who's willing to lay down one's biases for a second. While coming a bit short on self-penned material, the duo have finally managed to find themselves comfortable with their new style. No rock'n'roll, no jazz, just simple orchestrated pop - the critics frowned, but I say all right, because that's what the Carpenters could be really good at. A good example of their progression would be the hit single 'Rainy Days And Mondays'; compared to, say, 'Close To You', it's an obvious melodic advance, with a wonderful tension build-up, cleverly placed vocal hooks and convincing vocals. One should also consider that the song has nothing to do with standard love thematics; it's a charming personal revelation, with enough angst and sincerity in Karen's voice to make one want to identify with... eh, well, not to be carried away by stupid sentimentality - simply a well-written pop song with hard-hitting hooks.

That's not to say that all the songs on here are like that: the Carpenters never released an ideal pop masterpiece, and the percentage of dreck is still at a dangerously high level. '(A Place To) Hideaway', 'For All We Know', and the closing 'Sometimes', with its lengthy and completely unnecessary piano intro, are all unmemorable and generic - no hooks as far as I get it, just standard, plain, smooth ear-candy graced by Karen's lovely voice to help the listener forget about the musical triviality of these ditties. 'One Love' is also obnoxious - I find the vocal melody to be a wee bit inventive, but the message is, ahem... I guess the song was actually meant as an "antidote" to the cock-rockish sexism of the time, don't you?

But dreck or no dreck, the level of good stuff on here is still surprisingly overwhelming. Surprisingly. The Carpenters' pretty bounciness finally falls in place - the brief, Richard-sung 'Saturday' is a funny piece of pop boogie; and the Bacharach-David medley near the end of the album is pulled off excellently: innocent 'n' inoffensive bop-pop, for sure, but who cares? These melodies are good. Then, of course, there's Karen's sweeping take on Leon Russell's 'Superstar', perhaps the most "daring" performance ever tried out by the duo, considering the song's hints at the very sexism they seemed to be battling against on 'One Love'. The arrangement is light years away from true rock'n'roll, of course, but combining a swell soulful melody like that with Karen's voice was a brilliant move; in fact, it reminds me of ABBA (which is a compliment for the Carpenters - they could only wish to possess the melodic and arranging skills of the Swedish guys).

Likewise, I have nothing against 'Let Me Be The One'; its dancey "rhythm'n'groove" actually seems refreshing after all those slow Hollywoodish orchestrated numbers, and taken in context, it turns to be one of the highlights on here. And finally, Richard "shines" once more with the hilarious 'Druscilla Penny', dedicated to bashing the very groupies that Karen seemed to 'take a liking to' while singing 'Superstar' (!). I'm not at all offended by the lyrics to the song, mind you: it might have been a personal statement condemning the very pillars of rock'n'roll (you know what pillars I'm speaking of, doncha?), but essentially it's all true and well-deserved. Groupies are a plague.

Anyway, while the 'progressive' critics of the day annihilated the album, and while even today the Carpenters don't really seem to get any respect from the review writing crowds after Close To You, I repeat - it is my deep conviction that Carpenters is their finest hour at trying to produce a well-written, idosyncratic, listenable, hell, even somewhat tasteful record. Its only disadvantage, I guess, would be in completely ditching the 'artsy' edge - nothing like 'Another Song' on this album. But come on now, whoever liked the Carpenters for their 'artsy' edge? You wouldn't judge all Rolling Stones albums according to the standard of Their Satanic Majesties' Request, now would you?



Year Of Release: 1972

Pathetic. Just when you thought the Carpenters finally found their style, they go ahead and ruin it all again - this time, ruin it utterly. This is not the worst thing they ever released because it contains no straightforward offensive numbers like 'Wonderful Parade'. But it's an album that truly defines all the worst sides of the Seventies' "schlock rock". (Not surprisingly, it was one of their biggest commercial smashes of the time, with a string of six minor and major hit singles littering the charts). This time around, Richard and Karen apparently thought that pop hooks were beyond them - just like expert progressive rockers who think likewise after scoring several hit singles before launching head first into the world of twenty-minute long boring suites. But if proggers can at least be redeemed by the "serious" character of their music, A Song For You has no redeeming qualities to it.

Essentially, it's just ballad after ballad after ballad, the only good thing about which seems to be Karen's voice, which grows more and more lush with every next record. Otherwise, it's just a swamp to sink in: no real climaxes, no sudden melodic twists, no memorable lines, no stabs at unusual instrumentation. Nothing. If there is a single song on here that's half memorable, I must probably have the better half of my memory completely inoperative. The title track, yet another cover of Leon Russell, is a stately bore, plodding along with a total of about three chords (must be punk rock!!!), and the sax solo only adds to the dread. Worse is the realization that about half of the numbers on here firmly follow in its steed, culimnating in the hideous preachiness of 'Bless The Beasts And The Children', apparently the title track of the soundtrack to some little-known movie. Maybe it fit the movie, I don't know.

On one track, the Bricklayers suddenly display a newly-found love for country music - 'Top Of The World' is a mid-tempo stylization, replete with obligatory slide guitars and all. But it's arranged and performed in the most perfunctory way possible, devoid of even a shred of real excitement.

Thus, after the fifth or sixth listen, when my brain cells finally started to pop out of their places and explode with silly chirping noises, I finally realized that the only way to write about this stuff is to pick out the few "goodies" that can be found on the album and collect them in one place. These scraps and crumbs, when collected together, washed, dried, and put in order, turned out to guarantee the album at least a weak two stars. And here they are. 'Hurting Each Other' displays a little of the Carpenters' former bounciness, but only in the somewhat catchy chorus. 'Goodbye To Love', while an abysmal song by itself, features an excellent guitar solo from Louie Shelton - admit it, up till now you didn't often meet an electric guitar solo on a Carpenters album. And the two Richard solo spots are tolerable: 'Flat Baroque' is, indeed, a baroque-tinged slice of instrumental classical pop, and 'Piano Picker' is at least somewhat funny.

And, of course, the greatest thing about the album - undoubtedly the best track on here - is 'Intermission', where a multi-layered Karen and a multi-layered Richard, in the finest choral tradition, chant: 'We'll be right... we'll be right... we'll be right back... After we go to the bathroom'. Which, of course, would be enough to make one rush out and buy the album, if only it wasn't immediately followed by 'Bless The Beasts And The Children', which will make anybody in his or her right mind go to the bathroom in person.

I mean, it's almost as if the Carpenters, at this point, wanted to actually prove all their critics' arguments, and with this album, they were defying their enemies: 'Yes, we are sappy and sentimental, we don't care about writing or performing good melodies, but we are still popular among the housewives and among the politicians, and you can't touch us'. It was also the time of their "social peak" - that famous Nixon performance took place somewhere at that time - and you can imagine how much dirt the siblings received smack in their face. Well, so who's to blame? They deserved it themselves.



Year Of Release: 1973

A fun project, even if trite and somewhat sleazy - the Carpenters suddenly felt a strong touch of retro and decided to issue a tribute to all of their favourite teenybop and surf rock heroes of the earliest Sixties. Some make a fuss about that, but I'd rather listen to their fully conventional renditions of 'Da Doo Ron Ron' and 'Fun Fun Fun' than be forced to listen to their fully conventional renditions of that dreadful orchestrated sludge, so I can't help but be a little satisfied.

The whole lengthy "suite" occupies half of the album and is presented in the form of an obnoxious radio show, with bass player Tony Peluso playing the part of the DJ and nearly spoiling all the fun with his way too self-important announcements. It is, quite logically, introduced by a self-penned number - the hit 'Yesterday Once More', which I have mixed reactions for. On one hand, I can't deny the catchiness and a certain charm in the way Karen waxes nostalgic about 'every sha-la-la-la, every whoa-whoa'. On the other hand, this idealization of early Sixties' commercial radio sound sounds way too sickening to my ears - after all, early Sixties' radio wasn't all Beach Boys and Four Seasons, it was also Frankie Avalon, wasn't it? Somehow I think that the Carpenters were actually continuing the line of the latter than of the former ones. And imagine a song of the Nineties that waxes nostalgic about the Seventies and how we the old ones used to groove to that wonderful Carpenters sound... Eeeeeh. Kinky.

In any case, the 'suite' in general is well-performed. Of course, it's tepid beyond hope and they make sure to squeeze every bit of freshness and genuine excitement out of 'Fun Fun Fun' and 'Johnny Angel', but that kinda goes without saying; isn't this the most artificial, rigid, clean-cut duet in the world that we're speaking of? There's a certain masochist pleasure in listening to these songs, and at least they don't try to tamper with the melodies (though I'd love to hear a slow ballad version of 'Fun Fun Fun' - after all, if they can slow down 'Ticket To Ride', then nothing is sacred). The best thing on there is 'Dead Man's Curve', I suppose - the only thing that may sound intriguing to some, because of the funny shifts between the hilarious and the ominous tones. But seek out those originals first. Not all, because some of them sucked in the first place and suck here. 'The Night Has A Thousand Eyes'? (Richard embarrassing himself once more). 'End Of The World?' Man, the siblings had crappy taste.

There's also the first side of the album, with material of marginally higher quality than the one on the preceding record; yet even this side happens to feature a disgusting, juvenile piece of junk ('Sing', marred by a childish chorus and, well, Lack Of A Memorable Melody, LOMM for short). But at least songs like 'This Masquerade' and 'I Can't Make Music' are more or less dark and disturbing, which makes a good contrast to the sentimental schlock of yore - maybe Karen suffered a depression or something. Almost certainly suffered a depression, because the album cover features the siblings carelessly sitting in a red car before a cozy cottage. When somebody puts out album covers like that, it sure means they are highly depressed at the time. And what awesome, confessional, inspired, self-autobiographical lyrics: 'And I can't make music/No I can't make rhyme/No I can't do anything/To take me away this time'.

On a lighter note, 'Heather' is just a pretty instrumental, and some stupid nerve in me happily twinkles each time I hear their absolutely sterile take on 'Jambalaya'. Due to the 'so bad it's fun' factor, perhaps. In any case, I highly disagree with the All-Music Guide's position that it was this album that turned the Carpenters into loathsome laugh-offs. It's just a kitsch album, like Bowie's Pin Ups or something - how could it be that offensive? A Song For You, now here is the real danger that stems from the duet; but Now And Then is just an innocent, if not all that tasteful, juvenile joke.



Year Of Release: 1975

After the innocent fun of Now And Then and a year-long lay-off period, the Carpenters return with a pretty solid offering. Okay, in reference to the Carpenters, "solid" hardly ever means anything besides 'listenable', but whatever the odds, Horizons is pretty listenable. Maybe covering the oldies gave them a fresh kick, but on here, they (actually, she - Richard doesn't have a single lead vocal on the record) sound wiser and more mature. What's even better, most of the usual sappiness is relegated to bouncier numbers, and the slow ballads are usually darker and melancholic, which significantly decreases the level of cheese. Granted, not too many of the melodies are actually memorable, and none of the slow ballads suck you in with a significant hook, but at least they're truly atmospheric and listenable all the way through. None of that cheap sentimentality. As far as I understand, it has something to do with Karen's state at the time - by 1975, she'd already started experiencing severe nervous breakdowns that eventually led to her death, all caused by touring strains, and the grim mood of many of the songs is well understood in retrospect.

Amazingly, the album's biggest hit was their version of the Marvelettes' 'Please Mr Postman' - apparently, the public wanted their Carpenters happy, joyful and upbeat rather than morose and sulking. It sounds nice, happy, joyful, and upbeat, indeed, but it hardly superates the original, not to mention the famous Beatles version which is still my favourite (well, everything the Beatles touched turned to gold, now didn't it?). Personally, I far prefer the other upbeat tunes on here, such as the #4 hit 'Only Yesterday'. It's more complex, self-penned and besides, it features Karen's excellent range - she begins in an unusually low, husky tone, then slowly 'progresses' up to her usual 'heights'. Likewise, 'Happy' is interesting in that it features a cool Moog synth solo; not that the Moogs were a novel by 1975, and it wasn't the first time a synth appeared on a Carpenters record, either, but it still sounds great.

As for the other songs, well, they're all slow dreary ballads, and they're all moody as hell, but they're also all hit and miss. The Eagles cover ('Desperado') works fine, because it was one of the Eagles' best songs to begin with, and Karen gives it an appropriate treatment. 'Solitaire' doesn't have much of a classy melody, but it also works fine due to the desperate lyrics and Karen's brilliant "character impersonation". And the 'framework' - the short opening and closing numbers, 'Aurora' and 'Eventide' - are nice mood-setters as well.

Most of the other stuff isn't memorable at all: 'I Can Dream Can't I' is also supposed to be a highlight, but I suppose it's really designed for the hardcore fan only, and the two love ballads on the second side are, after all, just mushy love ballads. But they're not at all disgusting, as the arrangements are rather restrained and the orchestration toned down when compared to some of the nasty earlier stuff. In any case, Horizon is certainly a good showcase of the duo's (or, rather, Karen's) talents: instead of dividing the material into half brilliant, half unbearable, they prefer to establish a more consistent pattern, and pump out "solid product" that's listenable all the way through, but hardly contains any 'classics'. And if you ask me, there's no better proof than Horizon to demonstrate that the Carpenters were really a deserving musical outfit, not just a passable schlock-producing pair of commercial hacks. I mean, they were already well-established stars, and by 1975, it would have been no problem to put themselves into the hands of "professional songwriters" and sing Hollywood schlock before happy housewives. Yet they didn't do it - they preferred writing their own material, and putting their own feelings into it, however dark and dreary they might have been at the moment: Horizon is far from a happy listen. So, much as I detest the standard Carpenters' vibe in general, I have no choice but to tip my hat towards the two of them. At least a little.

And the album? Heavily recommended for all Carpenters lovers. But if you're over-sentimental, be prepared to a lot of tear-jerking.



Year Of Release: 1976

A kind of bore. The level of offensiveness is pretty low here, but the excitement is gone. Whoosh. Swish. It boarded the latest space station and crashed in the Pacific Ocean. Whoopla. What happened? Why is the title track coming here as song number one? Why is it the best song on the album? Why is it only mediocre in retrospect? Why is it the ONLY memorable tune on here, for Chrissake? Who can answer my questions? Karen is in Heaven, and Richard is in politics. I can't go either of these places, as I'm an agnostic and prefer to stay as far away from politics as possible. Power corrupts. So does show-biz, and apparently, by the time of release of A Kind Of Hush, the lead sister and the follow-up brother were corrupted beyond measure. And no, I don't just mean that awful neurotic illness that eventually led poor Karen into the tomb. It's another illness - creative and 'performative' stagnation. It can be worse, sometimes. Don't let ME suffer that!

Anyway, like I said, 'A Kind Of Hush' is about the best track on here. It's a very pretty quirky little pop ditty, done in the Carpenters' trademark boppy style but with light countryish overtones. The guitars, pianos and occasional saxes all bop along so smoothly that I disregard the corny orchestration that mars the general effect. But apart from that, there are only two tunes on here that can be called 'boppy'. And these are? Oooh Lord. 'Goofus' sounds more or less as the title suggests, a worthless cabaret jingle that's supposed to, you know, be 'funny'. Cabaret style should be prohibited to Karen - she sounds so authentic it's disgusting. I'd rather listen to Yoko Ono doing 'Yes I'm Your Angel'. At least Yoko can't be mistaken for a professional cabaret starlette at any cost. And then the duo returns to the 'boppy' style only at the very end of the record, on 'Breaking Up Is Hard To Do' (which, by the way, marks Richard's only appearance on the record with a few backup vocals). It's okay, but not too different from 'A Kind Of Hush' to be too distinguishable - same guitars, pianos and saxes, just the overtones are more jazzy than countryish this time. Who cares?

Everything else is just Karen doing slow sappy ballads. Everything. Slow, sappy, and very much ballads. Too much ballads. Too very much very ballads. All generic love songs. All. All except 'Boat To Sail', a messy shitty song lazily celebrating the California style and Brian Wilson (the poor fatboy should be ashamed of those compliments - 'Brian Wilson songs are never left behind'? Whatever). Only one song manages to garner any attention from me, whatever it's called... eh, I'm afraid of confusing the song title... no, wait, got it: it's 'I Need To Be In Love'. Hard-to-confuse title, eh? It's got some really neat vocal tricks from Karen in the chorus and has a little bit more majesty and stateliness than anything else on here. It's about the only time she stretches herself out completely on the record - but it's also obvious that she just wasn't in particularly good form to carry that level throughout the album.

And besides, what the hell did they think to put a song called 'You' and a song called 'I Have You' on the same album? (Plus 'I Can't Smile Without You', although that one's not so obvious). What a brilliant metaphor for something worthless and generic.

I gotta realize that Karen was in a rather poor state, and we all gotta judge those late-period Carpenters records with certain reservations concerning the duo's contemporary state of affairs. But wouldn't it have been better to take a break than to overcome themselves and go back into the studio to record something that pathetic? No boppiness, no interesting arrangements, no Moog synths, no wise covers, no intelligent lyrics, no introspectiveness, no personality, no novelty value even. Oh you poor, poor Karen.


PASSAGE ***1/2

Year Of Release: 1977

Wow. Who would have thought that - in 1977, after a record that pretty much suggested the demise of the Carpenters as an at least somehow valid creative entity, near the end of decade, in the year of punk explosion, in a year when Fleetwood Mac's Rumours threatened to bury the duet forever in the rubble of their soft pop kingdom, Karen and Richard gathered their forces and put out what I currently consider the best album of their career. Okay, maybe not the best, but definitely one of their most solid, and an absolute marvel in relation to whatever surrounded it. From both sides.

It doesn't even matter that there ain't a single self-penned song on here. Who cares. Passage is an excellent, well-produced, laid-back, tasteful mix of all kinds of musical styles, ranging from traditional ballad to calypso to free-form jazz to Broadway musical to even... a spaced-out prog rock cover! When you thought all the Carpenters were good for was just recycling the old mishmash of sappy sludge, they arrive with a real winner as if they wanted to prove that it was still early to dismiss them as 'pop dinosaurs' or something like that. I don't really know about the album's chart successes; I have a suspicion its chart life should have been rather limited, as nobody was really that interested in the Carpenters by 1977, but I don't give a damn.

There are still a couple sappy ballads on here, but this is where you realize that it's actually all right to have one or two sappy ballads if they're sitting in among all kinds of different stuff. It's when you're bogged down in sappy ballads that trouble really starts. 'Two Sides' is pretty nice, with good guitar work all around (nice acoustic rhythm and tasty slide guitar licks in the background), and 'I Just Fall In Love Again' at least has a great vocal workout from Karen. That said, it's certainly not the ballads that draw my attention (actually, they don't draw my attention at all - I just feel so well-disposed towards the record that I thought I had to say something nice about the songs).

My attention is - for instance - drawn by the hilarious jazzy sendup of 'B'wana She No Home'. Where'd they unearth this poppy little wonder from, I wonder? It rules! And the traditional, trademark bounciness is back! Youpee! The Carpenters bounce again! It's been so long! And then they bounce on 'Sweet Sweet Smile', which is arranged in just about the perfect way for a tasteful Carpenters song. Electric piano, groovy guitar licks, interesting violins in the background... not just some kind of banal strings arrangement, but not a generic country rocker either. Something in between. Something really kicking! Just like the calypso workout 'Man Smart Woman Smarter', with great sax solos and more groovy vibes. Excuse me for a moment while I go shed a tear. I'm just so dang overwhelmed...

One thing worries me, though. Track number four is Karen Carpenter doing... Karen Carpenter doing... doing... no, I just can't... can't... Okay. It's Karen Carpenter doing 'Don't Cry For Me Argentina'. I'm sorry, I couldn't do anything. I wasn't there. I mean, at least she did it well, however bad you might feel about Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber getting entangled in the Carpenters' affairs. My hypothesis is that Karen wanted the role of Evita in the musical and when she was denied it she decided to have her own way. Correct?

Oh well, at least they redeem themselves by covering... brace yourself, by covering the obscure early Seventies prog rock band Klaatu ('Calling Occupants Of Interplan'). Never heard the original, and I assume it definitely must be better than the cover; but turns out that Richard was a fan of Klaatu and this was some kind of heartfelt tribute. Really complex song, complete with goofy dialogues with aliens. Don't want to comment in details until I've heard the original, though. In the meantime, if the Carpenters mean anything for you, you'll do your best to hunt this down. Of course, on the overall scale Passage is no great shakes, but according to the duet's own criteria, it's just pure marvel. Kudos to Karen and Richard for managing to 'upgrade' their reputation so well.



Year Of Release: 1978

Well, the title is true to the content, I guess. This IS a Christmas album - and a huge Christmas album at that, a double album chock-full of all kinds of traditional Christmas ditties arranged as pompously as possible. In fact, it's so dang pompous the Carpenters even preceded it with a four-minute 'overture' featuring themes of some of these songs, and ended it with Karen chanting 'Ave Maria'. In Latin, of course. Apart from those two, however, there's hardly anything specific I could tell you - unless you're not Anglo-Saxon, you've probably heard all of those songs every Christmas and beyond, and even if you're not Anglo-Saxon, 'Jingle Bells' should jingle (aka 'ring') that bell, right?

There's no way I could ever rate this record. You know how it goes with Christmas albums: they're actually quite nice and have their useful functions, to be, well, put on at Christmas. Why not? Only a moron would put on Motorhead or Einsturzende Neubauten while sitting at the Chrismas table. On the negative side, loads of Christmas albums are put out every year which recycle the exact same standard number of traditional Christmas tunes. Heck, even Ringo Starr put out one. Which means this is all just music intended for one-time listening - the only exception is that diehard fans of certain artists would probably treasure this particular artist's Christmas album, dismissing all the others.

That's the story with Christmas Portrait. It actually sold well in 1978 and even spanned a couple hit singles (including 'Merry Christmas Darling', 'Have Yourself A Merry Christmas' and probably 'Merry Christmas To All Merry Christmas Goers Who Would Wish A Merry Christmas To All Those Who Wish Them A Merry Christmas'), but since then, I dare say, the only people who'd want to listen to the record are those who don't want to spend any more money to buy another Christmas album or those who order Karen Carpenter on their wallpaper. I don't fall into either of these categories (and, frankly speaking, I hate Christmas music, too), but I can certainly understand them.

I actually wanted to give the record a very low rating, but then I thought, hey, this is a perfectly adequate record - it just doesn't have any musical value in the way that I'd like a certain record to be valuable, you know what I mean? As Christmas music, it may be great; heck, it was unanimously rated as a five-star album by everybody on, and who am I to go against EH? I'm one, and they are SO MANY! And they're all right in their own way. Wait until it's Christmas, light the candles, sit back at your table and let yourself be carried away by the heartwarming, uprising spiritual chant...

So the record doesn't get any rating at all. I am a bit disappointed that the Carpenters' sudden and unexpected artistic comeback on Passage was so brutally smashed, but hey, I have already grown used to their inconsistency. And it's a really hard task to go and try to combine artistic integrity with an ardent desire to sell another couple million records, isn't it?


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