CD Review Published in City Monthly Magazine Feb 2004

Carpenters "Gold: 35th Anniversary Edition"

My uncle was a garbage collector. A trash man by profession, he constantly brought home things people had thrown away. His wife made him keep "all that garbage" in the basement. In the early 70's I wasn’t even a teenager yet and to me his basement was an uncharted world of endless treasures, some soiled or broken, or missing a few teeth, but all filled with wonder and potential. Stacks of creased porno magazines, dismembered dolls, moldy books, dented toys, radios that didn't work, and discarded records.

Tons of records.

That was the first place I heard the voice of Karen Carpenter, the first place I heard the music of the Carpenters, and the first time I was struck by the lightning rod of Music. The embers of a life-long obsession were sparked that day, beginning a more than twenty year career in music, and an ongoing appreciation of the Carpenters.

When I was a kid, the songs that appealed to me were the simpler, poppy songs, such as "Sweet Sweet Smile", a cover of an early Juice Newton hit, "There's a Kind of Hush", a cover of the Herman's Hermits hit, and "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)", a cover of the Hank Williams hit. Of course, for me, at the time, these were all simply Carpenters songs, having never heard the originals. It was a delight when singing along to wrap my tongue around lines such as

Jambalaya crawfish pie fillet gumbo
For tonight I'm gonna see my maschera-mio
Pick guitar fill fruit jar and be gay-oh
Sons of a gun we'll have big fun on the Bayou.

It's the Carpenters' "Yellow Submarine," a perfect song to introduce kids to popular music. And a stepping stone to the meatier stuff.

Some people might have a hard time naming their favorite album of all time. But not me. Mine's "Horizon" by The Carpenters (1975). Never has there been a more perfect pop album. Bookended by "Aurora" and "Eventide" which place the album context in the framework of a day in the life, or the path of a relationship from beginning to end. It ventures through a delicate version of the Eagles "Desperado", in which Karen's voice aches with loneliness, pops through the Marvelette's Motown hit "Please Mr Postman", and through a stunning version of Neil Sedaka's "Solitaire." The emotional peak is "Happy", a deceptively simple statement of pure relationship bliss ("Happy is the way I'm feeling and I know it's cause I'm falling in love with you"), but followed by two "I love you but can't live with you" songs, "(I'm Caught Between) Goodbye and I Love You", which is self explanatory, and "Love Me for What I Am", a love me or leave me statement of self worth and integrity.

Some people might have a hard time naming their favorite song of all time. I don't. Mine is "Only Yesterday" by the Carpenters, from the album, "Horizon." Never before or since has there been a more perfect pop song. Four minutes and twelve seconds or perfection. Perfect arrangement, perfect production, perfect vocals, just... perfect. Lyrics that you can listen to, sing along with, and leave it at that, or you can think about them and realize just how insightful and meaningful they are.

"Only yesterday when I was sad and I was lonely
You showed me the way to leave the past and all it's tears behind me
Tomorrow may be even brighter than today
Since I threw my sadness away
Only Yesterday."

In the context of the album it comes near the beginning, in the "honeymoon" phase of a relationship where it's still all roses without the thorns, full of potential and smooth sailing, the place where nothing can possibly go wrong. Now was there ever a song written that describes what being in love, the first rush of bliss, FEELS like, better than this? If you ever get depressed, put on that song and you just can't feel sorry for yourself, no matter how hard you try. Or was there ever a song that more personifies the Carpenters sound? The lushness of the production, Karen's perfect voice on every note, the fullness of the layered vocals, the glimmering pop, the patented Karen drumming, the church chimes, the sax solo, the tender oboe harmony, the castanets, the key change into the last chorus... the glory and the wonder of it all.

And in that favorite song of all time, from my favorite album of all time, is my favorite note of all time. And that note, ladies and gentlemen, is the first note Karen sings in the line, "After long enough of being alone, everyone must face their share of loneliness". It's the E-flat to end all E-flats. It's the "A" in "After", it's the spot on perfect note that sounds like a perfectly tuned saxophone, the note that comes from nowhere and nails it right there like a hammer on an anvil, and rings proud and true and perfect. I love how she has just a hint of "h" as in "hAFter long enough". I have played that note on repeat and swear you can almost taste heaven. Karen was at her peak on this album, and the Carpenters were at their peak, both commercially and artistically. This time was also the beginning of the end for her, although no one would know that until much later.

As I grew into a teenager in the late 70's, music changed, and as much as I still loved the Carpenters, Captain & Tennille and ABBA, we were now into "new wave" acts such as the Pretenders, The Cars, the Clash and then Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and the Cure, and the Carpenters music was out-dated and forgotten.

Ten years later, in 1989, I was out of college and in my late 20's, and going through a very messy "divorce," my first and most painful. I was working in a record store and CDs were just catching on big time. There was a box of cassettes in the basement that nobody wanted, and picking through it, I found a new Carpenters album, "Lovelines," which was an album of songs pasted together and fleshed out from remnants of previously unfinished recordings. Track #2, "Where Do I Go From Here?" stopped me in my tracks. It was Karen's voice, like a long lost friend in the darkness, singing the thoughts in my head.

It's colder now, the trees are bare and nights are long
Can't get warm since you've been gone
Can't stop singing sad songs
Where do I go from here
Tell me where do I go from here
You said you'd take me through the years
So where do I go from here?

The lightning rod of the Carpenters had struck me again, and as I collected their back catalog on cd one by one, with that collection grew a new-found and adult appreciation of their talent and their music. The cheesy hit singles that I had loved on 45s as a kid were often skipped on cd as I mined the richness and melancholy of their darker hits and more challenging album tracks.

I still get a chill every time I hear "A Song For You", a cover of a Leon Russell track, as Karen reaches out from the grave:

And when my life is over
Remember when we were together
We were alone and I was singing this song for you.

Or "Goodbye to Love":

I'll say goodbye to love,
No one ever cared if I should live or die
Time and time again the chance for love has passed me by
And all I know of love is how to live without it
I just can't seem to find it
So I've made my mind up I must live my life alone
And though it's not the easy way I guess I've always know
I'd say goodbye to love.

Sounds dramatic, I admit, but don't tell me you've never felt just exactly that.

And that's what the Carpenters music is to me. It's all about love, and, the lack thereof. When you boil it down to the bone, is there really anything else? It's the adventures our hearts go on each day when we step foot out the door, laced with all the pain and misery, loneliness and heartbreak, but also charged with unadulterated glee, the ecstatic glow of meeting someone, the potential for happiness and understanding. Or at least the hope.

All wrapped up on a perfectly produced package, with the remarkable and unmistakenly distinctive voice of Karen Carpenter, whose own story of life and love is heartbreaking, tragic and therefore mythological. The Carpenters did not lead self fulfilled lives, they literally worked themselves to death in the name of success, but communicated and lived through their music which is deceptively lush, emotionally brutal, but unequivocably honest, and thereby, timeless.

February 4, 2004 marks the 21st anniversary of Karen Carpenter's death due to complications brought on by anorexia nervosa. Not particularly a cause for celebration, but an occasion being marked nonetheless by A&M Records, who is releasing a 2 cd compilation of hits, album tracks and rarities, entitled, "Carpenters Gold: 35th Anniversary Edition."

In the liner notes, Richard writes:
"Thirty five years. In February of 2004, A&M Records will have released this 2 cd compilation, carpenters Gold, to commemorate the thirty five years that have elapsed since Karen and I were signed to the label, Of course, I am gratified to know that after all these years our music remains so popular worldwide and that A&M has requested this new release. What is saddening and sobering, however, is the realization that we lost Karen twenty years ago and just how quickly the years can pass; the most recent of Karen's vocals in this set having been recorded in 1980. "

This new compilation runs the gamut from cheesy hits like "Sing" (who on earth would dare to cover a song from Sesame Street?) through undisputed pop classics such as "Close to You," We've Only Just begun," and "Rainy Days and Mondays, some varied covers including Barry Manilow's "Trying to Get the Feeling Again", the Mamas and the Papas "California Dreaming", and Klaatu's "Calling Occupants (of Interplanetary Craft)", and includes some rare tracks such as their previously unreleased version of the Muppet's "Rainbow Connection," written by long-time Carpenters compatriot Paul Williams.

Companion DVD also available.

- Rod Reynolds Los Angeles February 2004 ©2004 The Art Dept LA

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