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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Carpenters: Close To You


1) We've Only Just Begun; 2) Love Is Surrender; 3) Maybe It's You; 4) Reason To Believe; 5) Help!; 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.

It should hardly come off as a big surprise that the first song to break Carpenters big was a Burt Bacharach number. What does come off as a surprise is that the song in question, first recorded by Richard Chamberlain in 1963 and then re-done by Dionne Warwick and Burt himself, actually sounds good in this arrangement — Richard (Carpenter) gave it more of a beat, bringing it closer to a lively music hall number, and Karen sang it like only Karen could: with a pinch of dark de­spair, implying that being "close to you" is more of an unattainable dream than a reality. I could very well live without the last minute and a half of dreamy la-las and wah-wahs that try to dis­solve memories of Karen's dark-golden voice in regular syrup, but the first three minutes prove decisively that even a Burt Bacharach song can be turned to first-rate pop art if it is done properly. (Ironically, the second Bacharach song on here, ʽBaby It's Youʼ, is done in a slower, soapier, and far more generically melodramatic manner — definitely not the right way to cook this goose, so do right unto yourself and check the Beatles' version instead).

The second big hit that confirmed and solidified their pop star status was ʽWe've Only Just Begunʼ, a song that had just skyrocketed the career of... Crocker National Bank! (having been used, alongside wedding imagery, in a TV commercial) — and yet again, Karen was able to make something bigger out of this than just a sappy wedding ditty. The key to this version is that, by her very nature, she was almost incapable of sounding perfectly happy: there are no false sugary notes in this voice as she sings about "white lace and promises" — instead, there is a note of pensive introspection, an implicit understanding that some out of the "so many roads to choose" may not necessarily be the right ones. Even the flute riff somehow manages to combine tender­ness with a warning intonation, and this mix of happiness and worry is precisely what separates the Carpenters' version from just about any other cover of this song that you might encounter. In short, this performance has psychological depth, even if none of this was an intentional decision on the part of either the brother or the sister. (For that matter, just how many people, I wonder, upon hearing the song and seeing the album sleeve back in 1970 thought of Richard and Karen Carpenter as husband and wife rather than siblings?).

In between these two classics (yes they are), Richard and Karen insert all sorts of randomized material that suffers either from being too lightweight and flimsy (Offering-style), or too boring, or both. The idea to repeat the formula of ʽTicket To Rideʼ with another Beatles song falls flat: not only is their slowing down of ʽHelp!ʼ sort of plagiarizing Deep Purple, but, unlike ʽTicket To Rideʼ, ʽHelp!ʼ was actually a showcase for desperation from the very beginning, and there are no new dimensions to be opened here (plus, Karen is mixed way too low for her magic to work pro­perly this time). Pop fluff like ʽLove Is Surrenderʼ and ʽI'll Never Fall In Love Againʼ (Bacharach again!) passes by quickly and inconspicuously, and Richard-led pop fluff like ʽI Kept On Loving Youʼ passes by slowly and painfully. Tim Hardin's oft-covered ʽReason To Believeʼ is quite nice and gives a good hint at how Carpenters could have sounded with a country-western career (not too country-westernish, I'd say), but the definitive version of the song still belongs to Rod Stewart: this one is just way too fragile.

Curiously, the most interesting two songs past the big hits actually belong to Richard, although ʽCrescent Noonʼ would not have been anything other than a midnight piano ballad without Karen: this is her technically strongest and, perhaps, most nuanced performance on the entire album, not to mention the most depressing — it would have been a stroke of genius to place it at the very end, so that the record could go from "we've only just begun to live..." to "all our green Septem­bers burn away, slowly we'll fade into a sea of midnight blue", but I imagine that such grim con­ceptuality would have been banned by the industry people; after all, this is family entertainment here, not an airbrushed take on Jim Morrison. So the song is buried deep in the middle of Side B, immediately followed with ʽMr. Guderʼ, an amusing personal attack on a Disneyland boss who had the nerve to fire Richard once — and, by extension, a general attack on all kinds of corpo­rate behavior, ever so ironic because it does not seem to me that Richard was particularly averse to shining shoes, neat haircuts, coats and ties, either. Still, it is always fun to hear a soft-pop artist go soft-poppily vicious on The System, more so than just have another love ballad from them.

To conclude: Close To You is where the duo truly arrives, especially considering that Karen is handling most of the lead vocals now, and while they would have slightly more consistent albums in the future, on the whole, this is really as good as it gets — for all their career, they had exactly one great asset at their disposition (some people also like to gush about Richard's skill in arrange­ments, but complex and perfectly organized fluff is still fluff), and they did not always use it with wisdom. When they did, though, I can pardon them everything else for it.


  1. Close to You (the song) always fills me with a sense of cloying dread whenever it wafts across the airwaves. Sappy lyrics: The whole "angels got together...sprinkling moondust in your hair"...((shudder)) I think I'm having a diabetic seizure...

    Bacharach/David: Never really been a fan. Warwick was the their best interpreter but those Herb Alpert Lite horns put me to sleep, and they bathe their songs in syrup and then dredge them in a pile of goose feathers. Not a good thing to swallow. Karen's "Never been faithful" scathing vocal on Baby It's You is the only thing that saves these songs from being a trinity of treacle. I'm still partial to Smith's earlier version.

    On the other hand, Only Just Begun does have some depth, I think Paul Williams' involvement makes the difference, commercial jingles aside. Karen does get to work that lower register.

    I love Crescent Noon, it's a whole other level of emotional power. I'm actually impressed Richard came up with something that dark. And the little jam at the end of Another Song is cool as well.

  2. I once read (in a Tim O'Brien book, I think) that veterans of the Vietnam war scoff at soundtracks to popular movies about the conflict. Apparently Hendrix, The Stones, The Doors, and even Credance were not what you wanted to hear between fire fights. The REAL soundtrack would be comprised of hits from The Carpenters, Neil Diamond, and the Monkeys.

    Imagine if filmmakers used "We've Only Just Begun" to set the obligatory ambiance of tension and horror of guerrilla war instead of "Purple Haze" and "Sympathy for the Devil". I daresay Karen's depth could pull that shit off -- and it wouldn't even be all that ironic! I still marvel at how she can take such sappy lyrics and make them so invitingly sad. Given the right cinematic context, her smoothness would make any combat scene more unnerving.

    1. "Hurting Each Other" over a battle scene would be a wallop.

  3. I know you don't really care for Burt Bacharach George, but let me go on record saying that, from a purely compositional standpoint, he is light years ahead of virtually every other songwriter you've covered on this site.

    His songs use frankly bizarre chord progressions and time signature shifts, yet still manage to be digestible, catchy pop! No less than Richard Rodgers praised his compositional complexity.

    For instance, the chord progression for Tim Hardin's Reason to Believe is pretty much just, G, D, C and Em. The Beatle's Let it Be is just C, G, F, and Am. Bacharach's Alfie uses Bbm9, Cm7/F, Gm7, Dm7, Cm9, Edim add A, F9aug5, Am7, Em7, Fm6, Gm9, C13, Em7dim5 and I think I've left out a few chords at that.

    Now obviously one's visceral, emotional reaction to a song is significant and often the most important factor. I understand that for many listeners technicality is meaningless. Still, it irks me a bit to see people write off Bacharach as easy listening fluff, when his works have way more going on melodically than pretty much every "critically acclaimed" rock song writer. Even those who hate prog rockers at least acknowledge their technical skill (and I would add that most of the prog rock complexity came from instrumental virtuosity and not actual melodic complexity). Burt Bacharach never seems to get even that grudging respect from detractors.

    I still wouldn't use Close to you as evidence of his genius(and yes if "genius" is to be used for any pop/rock songwriters Bacharach belongs on that list). Still, if I had to listen to a version of it, I'd go with Dionne Warwick's take.

    1. I'm not sure what policy choices lead George to review Adele, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Carbon Based Lifeforms(?!), and Cher, but then skip Bacharach. Like him or not (and I don't really) his compositions stomped the pop terra for at least two decades. And sometimes he did record his own stuff. At the very least, his album Reach Out from '67 was certainly a thing. Besides, anyone who could inspire Arthur Lee to rock so hard, so early can't be all bad.

      I'm sure there's a rationale for his exclusion, I just can't infer what it is. Maybe he just hasn't gotten to ol' Burt.

    2. This is precisely the reason why, as far as I'm concerned, Paul McCartney is a genius and Burt Bacharach is not. If you can elicit a visceral, emotional reaction from the listener with four chords, you're a genius. If you cannot do this with thirteen, you're a technical hack. As complex as 'Alfie' might be, it never amounts to much more than background muzak for me.

    3. Alfie? Bad example. Bad Bacharach.
      Good Bacharach is for bathroom whistling.

    4. @Carlo Dave:
      When exactly Arthur Lee "rocked so hard"?


    Eat your heart out, Beth Gibbons!