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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Carpenters: Offering

CARPENTERS: OFFERING (1969)

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.

The main problem with the Carpenters' generally forgotten debut album is simple, as long as you subscribe to the world view that has been gradually consolidating around the duo's post-mortem reputation — namely, that «Carpenters» (as a concept) were shite, while Karen Carpenter was anything but. Admittedly, it is a flawed and incomplete view, but, unfortunately, I cannot help drifting towards it myself, and nowhere is it more evident than on Offering (what a posh title!), the duo's first big, er, offering to the A&M label. Today, it is better known as Ticket To Ride, after its only minor hit single, but I am keeping the original title for honesty's sake, especially since «honesty» is generally a big concern for bands like these.

Technically, the album was a transitional affair, recorded very soon after the breakup of Richard and Karen's band Spectrum and still containing traces of a «band» rather than «duo» (or, even better, «solo») approach to business. More than half of the songs were actually written by Richard, with lyrics by former bandmate John Bettis — even though Richard never was and never would be a talented songwriter; and about half of the songs are sung by Richard, even though I always end up feeling like a three-year old every time I hear a Richard vocal. The syrupy-upbeat atmo­sphere ends up infecting Karen's performances as well (ʽDon't Be Afraidʼ, etc.), and the result is not so much «soft rock» as it is «Sesame Street rock», a subgenre that the Carpenters would never fully relinquish voluntarily, but Offering is really their only album to have been recorded almost completely in that genre.

There are exceptions, of course — two or three of these, pointing the way to future moments of triumph, and, as anybody can guess, it is first and foremost the songs that put Karen's rich, dark lower range overtones in proper focus, with an aura of near-tragic melancholy that hinted at a very troubled soul (not to mention physiology) even back when Karen Carpenter was, formal­ly, still a lively, fun-loving, drum-toting tomboy. A particular highlight, long forgotten in favor of future hit songs in the same style, is Richard's ʽEveʼ, a lush Euroballad that is, unfortunately, spoiled by too many overdubbed harmonies and strings in the chorus, but sounds near-perfect when it's just Karen and the piano (or, in later verses, a bit of overdubbed harpsichord on top): here, already, she is able to woo the listener with merely the opening "Eve, I can't believe that you would mean what you just said..." — few singers are able to combine special vocal technique with fully believable realism of the delivery, and here we witness the combination of a capable singer, a perfect actor, and a captivating human being.

Compared to ʽEveʼ, the far better known title track is not nearly as impressive. The idea to put the "sad" back into "I think I'm gonna be sad" is brilliant per se — whatever you could say about the original ʽTicket To Rideʼ, you could never truly suspect the song of disseminating an atmosphere of genuine sadness (the irony was, of course, best captured in the Help! movie where it was per­formed to footage of all four Beatles enjoying themselves like ecstatic kids while skiing in the Alps — so who's got a ticket to ride, once again?). Problem is, they lay it on a bit too thick, slowing the song down to an almost ridiculous crawl, and the theatricality here actually over­shadows the realism — much as I'd love imagining the song as a far more hard-hitting retort by somebody like Cynthia Lennon ("the boy that's driving me mad is going away... he's got a ticket to ride, and he don't care" — sound familiar?). Still, the purpose is a noble one, as is their other tasteful choice of a cover: Buffalo Springfield's mournful ʽNowadays Clancy Can't Even Singʼ, another broken down lady tale that they smother in strings and woodwinds, but without sacrifi­cing its tragic-humanistic spirit. Too many Richard vocals, though!

As for the rest... well, stuff like ʽYour Wonderful Paradeʼ is the kind of stuff I would rather be dead than caught listening to by even the closest friends and relatives (fortunately, I always have a «reviewing purpose only» excuse for anything, and you don't!), even if it is a somewhat catchy pop song, with appropriately cartoonish tin soldier drumming from Karen who, at this point, still considered herself strictly a «singing drummer»; but the atmosphere of cutesy-whimsy is unbea­rable — if you're gonna do it, just go all the way and get an ʽAll Together Nowʼ or a ʽYellow Sub­marineʼ out of your system, rather than this middle-of-the-road crap that is too boring as a kiddie tune and too corny as an adult one. The same applies to most of the other songs written by Richard, ʽEveʼ excepted — but when he wants to write a sentimental ballad, he often falls flat, too, as on ʽSomedayʼ, a mushy Broadway tune whose spineless nature cannot even be redeemed by Karen singing it without outside help.

Concerning the overall «coating» of the record, it is clear that it was at least as much influenced by The Beach Boys as it was by show tunes and Bacharach, but the latter influences still prevail, and despite frequent praise for Richard's talents as an arranger, the pretty effects that he got with multiple overdubs of his and Karen's vocals are consistently offset by Mantovani-type strings and the overall silky softness of pretty much every instrument played (yes, even Karen's drums — despite all the quirkiness and even sexiness of her «singing drummer» image, she was no Keith Moon when it came to hitting... uh, caressing that drumkit). Jazz influences are also obvious (the siblings' first work together was actually within a jazz setting), as on the brief jazz-pop experi­ment ʽAll I Can Doʼ, but... well, you know.

In the end, Offering clearly seems to deserve its reputation — a failed first attempt that misuses the duo's talents and is more often boring and/or embarrassing than illuminating; it is much to the siblings' credit that they were able to understand which elements had to be cut down and which ones had to be emphasized in such a record short time. But, like almost any first failure by a future great artist, it does have its flashes of occasional brilliance — and it is at least an intriguing failure, sounding so notably different from whatever would follow. So, one of those cases where a formal thumbs down might still warrant interest for those who find up-and-down curves more fascinating than all-the-way-up-the-hill trajectories.

13 comments:

  1. I know very little about the Carpenters and their career, but someone once played for me a very early song by the two called The Parting of Our Ways from 1966 that is excellent.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HIXGhFLs4VU

    It reminds me quite a bit of modern indiepop and groups like She and Him. I wish the Carpenters proper had sounded more like it.

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  2. Ah, the Carpenters. So uncool in their time, that they must be so cool now. Or so think the untalented indie hipsters of today (as most of them are)...

    That 1966 song is godawful.

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  3. Take the Beatles, the Stones, Doors, Hendrix or any other rockist white person canonised bs, multiply them by a billion and you're still nowhere near the coolness of Carpenters.

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    1. Ooh yeah, now you've shaken my white person's confidence in Ray, Chuck, Jimi, Aretha, Stevie, heck, even Nile, and whatever white music they influenced.
      Offering what? Every non-white person's darlings, Nixon friendly Carpenters.

      And the plan is to fight with this impotent fluff the dark forces of, what, rockism*?
      No wonder real dark forces are at display today.

      *Heard about this bs term around 2003, and never again.

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    2. You were almost there, but then you forgot to mention "gatekeepers". Try harder next time.

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    3. Ho ho, just keep on keeping your endangered Sesame Street gates. But watch out your rear from the Muppet Show affiliated muppets, especially the Electrical Mayhem crew.

      Rumor has it that they are the real ambassadors of cool in the next decades.

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    4. I was responding to drkmvs, not you.

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    5. @Stalvern: Sorry man, this one level thread system is extremely stupid when a discussion develops. I usually do what I did at the beginning of this comment. :-)

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  4. So, was it really their intent to make KC look like a fifty-year old nun?

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    1. The "corrected" Ticket to Ride version has their only normal photos, where they don't look like dorks.

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  5. Between this pablum and Cat "Loves me some Sharia" Stevens, George seems to be of a mind to drown in a sea of saccharine. At least he skipped Bread during the B's!

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    1. He skipped America, too.
      Otherwise the ABC of soft-rock would be complete.

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    2. He needs to start into that Yacht Rock catalog...Christopher Cross, Ambrosia, Late-period Doobies...

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