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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Carpenters: A Song For You


1) A Song For You; 2) Top Of The World; 3) Hurting Each Other; 4) It's Going To Take Some Time; 5) Goodbye To Love; 6) Intermission; 7) Bless The Beasts And Children; 8) Flat Baroque; 9) Piano Picker; 10) I Won't Last A Day Without You; 11) Crystal Lullaby; 12) Road Ode; 13) A Song For You (reprise).

My original review of this album was surprisingly cruel — or perhaps I did get mellow as time goes by, after all? Not sure how it happened, but now that I am giving A Song For You another chance, it is not clear even to myself how a Carpenters record without a single Bacharach tune on it, but with at least one Leon Russell and one Carole King original, could get such a low assess­ment. Of course, it is just another Carpenters album, which means there is no escaping mushy fluff at times, but it does host some of the duo's loveliest moments as well; released at the height of the soft-rock era, it is almost inevitably infected by a certain psychological subtlety that was omnipresent in 1970-72, and then, as the formula became a formula, pretty much evaporated from the spirit of long-haired dudes and dudettes with acoustic guitars and pianos.

A whoppin' half of the songs from here were released as singles (most of them high-charting ones), but, funny enough, not the title track — the most serious and solid composition on here, and another great vehicle for Karen to apply her talent. Like ʽSuperstarʼ, the song clearly must have meant much more to its composer and original singer than to Karen Carpenter, but she does a fine job adapting it to a womanly perspective, and she is believable when she sings "I've been so many places in my life and time", even though most of these places were in Connecticut and California. Heck, she even sounds believable when she sings "I've made some bad rhymes", even though she hadn't made any rhymes. The important thing is, she gets this message of repentance and redemption through pure love across in a clean, accessible, and realistic manner, without underdoing it or overdoing it — perfect phrasing all way 'round. The moody sax solo, lacking in Leon's stripped-down piano version, complements her appropriately.

The biggest hit was ʽTop Of The Worldʼ, featuring the duo in their countriest mood yet, with Nashville pro Buddy Emmons on pedal steel and Karen probably sporting her jauntiest cowgirl hat in the studio. The original intention was to use this Richard original as a (filler?) track on the album, but they changed their minds after Lynn Anderson had a hit with the song on the country charts — surprisingly, general pop audiences were only too happy to snap it up with Karen on vocals, perhaps seeing her presence as an excuse to satisfy their internalized country fetish. There is not a lot of space in this happy country romp for Karen's brooding melancholia, but she does at least as good a job with it as Lynn Anderson, sounding slightly more serious and stately in her own way. But on the whole, it is probably good that they did not latch on to this success and make a complete transition to country(-pop): pledging allegiance to cotton fields and rodeos would have ruined the last shreds of their credibility.

Of the other singles, ʽIt's Going To Take Some Timeʼ is nice, but completely unnecessary, since it is all but impossible for Karen to improve on Carole King's personal delivery (cute flute solo, though); the theme song for Stanley Kramer's Bless The Beasts And Children is lush, formless schlock, with the likes of which Karen can do very little; and the cover of Ruby & The Roman­tics' ʽHurting Each Otherʼ is too pompous and overblown to truly make one feel sorry for its protagonists. On the other hand, the obligatory Nichols/Williams contribution ʽI Won't Last A Day Without Youʼ has the catchiest chorus of 'em all; and ʽGoodbye To Loveʼ seems to be one of the finest songs Richard ever wrote — an elegantly flowing proto-ABBA ballad with a couple of brilliant fuzz guitar solos by guest star Tony Peluso; apparently, those solos were the reason that (a) some adult contempo­rary radio stations refused to play the song because of its «hard rock» content, and (b) some critics name it as the first, or at least the prototypical, «power ballad». Both points are fairly ridiculous (no ballad with Karen on vocals can be a true «power» ballad, because her strength is in subtlety, not power), but the solos are truly good, working as faithful outlets for burning emotion that is only subtly hinted at in the vocals.

In addition to the romantic elegance and the slushy schlock, the album features bits of unneces­sary silliness (ʽIntermissionʼ — "we'll be right back after we go to the bathroom"; its chief purpose is not so much to let us know that Carpenters can harmonize like the Beach Boys as it is to let us know that Carpenters, like regular mortals, are endowed with urinary tracts) and goofi­ness (the Richard-dominated interlude ʽFlat Baroque / Piano Pickerʼ, an educated musical joke that probably needs somebody like Saturday Night Live-era Bill Murray to make it work), but they are short, and sometimes they almost seem necessary to cut through some of the schlock. On the whole, though, the tone of A Song For You is set by the spiritually heavy title track — re­prised at the end so the framework could be complete — and despite the goofiness and the happy tunes like ʽTop Of The Worldʼ, most of the time the album wades through sorrow and melancho­lia, culminating with ʽRoad Odeʼ, not the best song here but certainly the most depressed one. Naturally, simply being sad and depressed all or most of the time does not necessarily make for a great album, but this is the best possible state for Karen as a performer, and from that point of view, A Song For You is one of the band's most adequate and well-rounded records, though, clearly, not at all free from poor musical choices and fluffy soapiness. At least ʽA Song For Youʼ, ʽGoodbye To Loveʼ, and maybe even ʽTop Of The Worldʼ, for a happy change, should clearly make it to that top-notch compilation — the rest is up to you.

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