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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Carpenters: Now & Then


1) Sing; 2) This Masquerade; 3) Heather; 4) Jambalaya (On The Bayou); 5) I Can't Make Music; 6) Yesterday Once More; 7) Fun, Fun, Fun; 8) The End Of The World; 9) Da Doo Ron Ron; 10) Deadman's Curve; 11) Johnny Angel; 12) The Night Has A Thousand Eyes; 13) One Day Will Come; 14) One Fine Day; 15) Yesterday Once More (re­prise).

Upon first, second, and third sight, no Carpenters record since at least Offering cries out so loud and proud for a definitive thumbs down. From 1970 to 1972, the duo's albums were fluffy, schlocky, and hundred-percent-safe for bourgeois consumption — yet the fluffy packaging could often conceal deep shades of psychologism, suffering, and unfulfilled (unfulfillable?) yearning; in other words, a case could be made for each and every one of those albums that, at some level, it was an artistic statement, and that people were paying money for the real thing, not just a beauti­fully packaged facsimile trinket. With Now & Then, their fifth record, that consistent streak came to an end: for some reason, the Carpenters thought it would be fun to play the retro-game, and delivered a set of carpenterized oldies — pretty much reinventing the Fifties and early Sixties as having taken place in a rose-colored dollhouse.

The title of the album itself is confusing. Apparently, Side B, introduced by the self-written anthemic state­ment ʽYesterday Once Moreʼ and otherwise consisting of a medley of oldies, is the Then side; however, the Now side also contains a cover of Hank Williams' ʽJambalayaʼ that, by all accounts, should be Then. Moreover, the Now selection in general is rather atypical for the duo: there is not a single Richard original, the only song from a familiar songwriter of theirs is Leon Russell's ʽThis Masqueradeʼ, and on top of this confusion rests their cover of the Sesame Street ditty ʽSingʼ. Okay, so everybody knew that Carpenters were a bit Sesame Street-ish from the beginning, but did they really have to rub it in our faces so ferociously?

No, they did not. And in all honesty, there is nothing serious for which I could recommend this album, with the possible exception of ʽThis Masqueradeʼ — with its late night jazz melody and arrangement, it is the weakest of their Leon Russell covers, but at least it is sufficiently dark and brooding to fit the bill (and Karen's lower range). Plus, you can't get any cheesier if you start covering Johnny Pearson instrumentals (ʽHeatherʼ) — might as well just pack it in and get your­self a paid job in the Top Of The Pops orchestra. Clearly, this is just a mighty embarrassment on all possible fronts, but... but...

...the thing is, Karen Carpenter + doo-wop / girl pop oldies = win. She may sound out of her ele­ment when doing contemporary happy material, but things are different when she sets out to cover ʽDa Doo Ron Ronʼ or ʽOne Fine Dayʼ, songs that clearly uplifted and inspired her back in those days and which she really sings with such pure childish joy that it totally transcends the corniness of the entire project. Yes, Richard often comes along and spoils the fun, fun, fun (al­though, admittedly, his singing voice is hardly worse than Mike Love's), but every time we get Karen behind the wheel, things get back to being irresistible. Heck, even that cuddly version of ʽJambalayaʼ — though it probably has poor Hank spinning in his silver coffin — is... ugh... adorable. There, I've said it. All of these are bubblegum reductions, but every once in a while, it becomes hard to resist a really sweet piece of bubblegum.

It is not difficult to resist ʽYesterday Once Moreʼ, the pathetic introduction to the old medley, because overblown nostalgic sentimentality over the once-liberating golden oldies might work well in a written essay, but not in an adult contemporary ballad. But the medley itself, once you have managed to close your ears to the irritating disc jokey interruptions (done by Tony Peluso in a very manneristic and overacted way), has an odd charm of its own — perhaps it is simply the time effect, though: I can imagine how crass this must have sounded for discerning audiences in 1973, but now that the Seventies themselves have long since passed into legend, it is probably an issue for nostalgia for the Seventies nostalgizing for the Sixties, if you get my drift. There is still a certain aura of touching innocence and sincerity about it all, something that is hardly imagi­nable these days from the likes of, say, Christina Aguilera or Miley Cyrus. (Although, admittedly, we have to wait for 30-40 more years to see how their warped portrayals of the good old days will sound to our ears at that time).

In short, it feels as if time might be kind to this — technically throwaway — moment in Carpen­ters' history, just as it seems to be equally kind to their better records. Additionally, Now & Then is better regarded not as a cheap sellout, but rather as a temporary diversion, a harmless attempt to capitalize on a nascent trend that would be abandoned by the time of their next album (although, as the hit cover of ʽPlease Mr. Postmanʼ would go on to show, they would still keep in mind the goldmine potential of the oldies). Now if only they hadn't included that Sesame Street song... because, look, guys: I know it may seem, from the faraway distance of 1973, that the target audiences of Sesame Street (or any of its pre-1969 predecessors) and ʽFun, Fun, Funʼ were all the same age, but there was a dividing line, and that line is called «puberty». Therefore, do make a choice — putting your toddlers and your horny teens in the same basket is most definitely anti-pedagogical. End of story.

1 comment:

  1. Aw, I like their version of "Sing". It might just be that I heard it when I was still watching Sesame Street itself, though.