Joel Goldenberg: Carpenters' Now and Then

Karen Carpenter .

Before we get started on this week's album, I have to recommend an online blog on the rateyourmusic.com website by someone named Schmidtt.

The extremely long blog, which runs about 20 pages, takes Rolling Stone magazine and the Rolling Stone Record (Album) Guide books for not only the inconsistency of their reviews (rating an album badly in the magazine, well in one record guide, and then badly in the next book), but also the incoherence of some of the earliest (probably drug-induced, man) writings, some very misguided reviews, and how publisher Jann Wenner wrote excessively sycophantic evaluations of albums by artists who were also his friends. For instance, after a group of reviewers trashed and mocked Bob Dylan's puzzling Self-Portrait double album, Wenner praised it in a subsequent issue. And then there was that five-star review of the Who's vastly inferior It's Hard album in 1982, which even the group didn't like.

In contrast, book co-editor Dave March took a buzzsaw in the 1983 Rolling Stone Record Guide to some artists that were praised in the 1979 guide, also co-edited by him.

The list is a hoot, and it can be seen at rateyourmusic.com/list/schmidtt/rolling-stones-500-worst-reviews-of-all-time-work-in-progress/.

And now to our featured album:

•••

In the 1970s and 1980s, FM 96 (as it was called then) had a program that, to the best of my memory, was called Prime Cuts. My father used to tape the show on cassette — as far as i can recall, they would play all or nearly entire albums. The result would be rather low-fi.

One of the earliest albums he taped was Carpenters' (not The Carpenters) Now and Then (1973), which was a unique LP in the recording history of siblings Karen and Richard Carpenter. Side 1 was individual songs, which showed a growth in sophistication in production, song choice and Karen's vocal style. Side 2 was nostalgic (the Then of Now and Then), starting with the hit Yesterday Once More, and continuing with a newly-recorded medley of well-known oldies.

When I used to hear the cassette more than 40 years ago, the low-fi sound gave the entire album an almost haunting quality, and some of that has carried on to my higher-fi listening today, which I will tackle in my song-by-song review.

Sing — This was originally written for the children's show Sesame Street, and thus Carpenters' version is cited as proof the group was bland, especially with the addition of a children's chorus, which in itself makes many rock fans gag. I don't mind the song, and I admire Richard's and Karen's fantastic harmonies.

This Masquerade — The group's rendition of the much-covered Leon Russell song is my favourite of those I've heard, and is one of Richard's most sophisticated arrangements. They should have recorded more songs like this, as I will make even clearer in the fourth song entry.

Heather — A gorgeous instrumental, and another peak for Richard Carpenter's arranging skills. I found it even more haunting on the low-fi cassette, massive hiss and all.

Jambalaya — Richard has been quoted as regretting that he and Karen recorded goofy songs. This Hank Williams song is not goofy per se (that was Goofus on their 1976 There's a Kind of Hush LP, and several others), but their approach was and, to me, it was a waste of valuable LP space.

I Can't Make Music — Back to the sublime. Karen sounds wonderfully vulnerable here. One of my top Carpenters favourites.

Yesterday Once More- Perhaps my favourite Carpenters song, you can sense the increased assurance Karen and Richard have in their respective roles. However, the LP version lacks parts (most crucially guitar) that the 45 RPM single has. The single is superior.

The Medley — Karen's vocals on songs like The End of the World (Skeeter Davis), Our Day Will Come (Ruby and the Romantics) and even the very light Johnny Angel (Shelley Faberes) make me wish she recorded those songs in their entirety rather than bits for a medley. Richard's vocals on Fun Fun Fun (the Beach Boys), Dead Man's Curve (Jan and Dean) and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (Bobby Vee) are the best he has performed — his voice was too thick on previous recordings — but the instrumental backing is too smoothed out for my taste.

And, finally, I love guitarist Tony Peluso's playing, but his role as the obnoxious DJ made me want to... but, of course, that was probably the reaction desired by Richard and Karen.

The album ends with a brief reprise of Yesterday Once More, sung in a slightly different key, and with much echo, to good effect.

 

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