Search This Blog

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Carpenters: Passage


1) B'wana She No Home; 2) All You Get From Love Is A Love Song; 3) I Just Fall In Love Again; 4) On The Balcony Of The Casa Rosada / Don't Cry For Me Argentina; 5) Sweet, Sweet Smile; 6) Two Sides; 7) Man Smart, Woman Smarter; 8) Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft.

Even if the Carpenters' «punk/disco year» album is no masterpiece, there is no denying that it was at least much more curious than anything they'd done in the previous three years (or more, if you do not think their gorging on the retro-teen vibe in 1973 was curious at all). As you push play and the first sounds that greet you include a thick, gritty, funky bassline rather than the predictable heavenly atmospherics, it immediately becomes clear that Richard's sleeping pills have worn off, at least temporarily, and that the siblings are trying to profit from that by undergoing a serious (well, relatively serious) image change. Of course, the cover of jazz-pop hero Michael Franks' ʽB'wana He No Homeʼ (reasonably amended to she for the Karen overtake) is not exactly a sign of trying to become «relevant» — it is just different, a mix of self-irony, self-confidence, and a number of «cool» bass, piano, and sax lines, all ridden by Karen in a mantle of quiet intelligent decadence. The lyrics are silly enough, for sure (and would probably be machine-gunned by to­day's social justice warriors), but the song manages to establish a commanding presence for Karen, making her sound stern and decisive for the first time in... ever?

Not that there is some kind of Karen-empowering manifesto on Passage; rather, it is just a con­solidated effort to take several new paths and try them out, one by one. Ironically, it is also the first Carpenters album without a single Richard composition on it — which might lead us to sug­gest that, perhaps, he had admitted to himself that he was incapable of moving beyond traditional and conformist patterns, and that if the duo were to move on somehow, this could only be done through interpretation. Hence the unlikely mix of jazz-pop, contemporary musicals (as Karen gets into character with Evita), calypso (ʽMan Smart, Woman Smarterʼ), and even art-rock — al­though for the latter purpose they still selected Klaatu, the latest sensation, over anything more sophisticated. (Then again, since Klaatu were suspected of really being The Beatles at the time, the meeting of the two was probably inevitable).

The Evita piece is the most puzzling inclusion, but not because they decided to test Karen with ʽDon't Cry For Me Argentinaʼ (although her range and relative lack of vocal power might not make her the best candidate indeed) — rather because they also decided to include the lengthy introduction (ʽOn The Balcony Of The Casa Rosadaʼ), inviting a real philharmonic orchestra and opera singers for no apparent reason other than putting Karen's aria «in the proper context». Be­cause, you know, otherwise we would not have been able to guess why an American girl from New Haven, Connecticut, should implore a country as far away as Argentina not to cry for her. Still, as far as convincing performances of overblown Andrew Lloyd Webber arias go, I'd at least take Karen over Madonna — Karen had an inborn knack for sounding deeper and wiser than her actual years, while Madonna will probably still sound like a nervous teenager when she's 80.

That deep and wise voice is pretty much wasted on humorous numbers like ʽMan Smart, Woman Smarterʼ, but definitely not on the Klaatu cover, which is every bit as good as the Klaatu original in terms of arrangement and better than the Klaatu original in terms of vocals: it is too bad that the world will no longer have a Karen Carpenter by the time that occupants of interplanetary, most extraordinary craft finally reach us — the aura of kindness and intelligence that she creates around her vocals is far thicker than John Woloschuk's. Also, they get Tony Peluso to play a beau­tiful dis­torted electric guitar solo, rather than Klaatu's original non-descript synthesizers. Perhaps the 160-piece symphonic orchestra was a bit of an exaggeration (Klaatu's Mellotron was sufficient enough, and gave the song a suitably astral feel), but other than that and the stupid «DJ» introduction ("we'd like to make contact with you... baby"), I have no complaints, and it is regrettable that in the few remaining years of Karen's life, Richard showed no intentions to ex­plore that direction further. Heck, even Electric Light Orchestra or Supertramp covers would have been better than... but we'll get to it, eventually.

The more expectable and traditional numbers on the record are still a tad more exciting than the completely sterile songs and arrangements on A Kind Of Hush. ʽAll You Get From Love Is A Love Songʼ at least has a bouncy rhythm and a catchy chorus; ʽSweet, Sweet Smileʼ is a ʽTop Of The Worldʼ-style return to jiggly country-pop; and ultimately, only ʽI Just Fall In Love Againʼ can be accused of being little more than an over-orchestrated mushy glop — and with Karen still at the top of his powers, one mushy glop per album is not much of a problem. Given the duo's general timidity, the steps they took on Passage were almost like a revolution for them: a failed revolution, for sure, since the album only heralded a rebirth that never came to pass, but enough to extend the longevity of the siblings' artistic reputation for a couple of years. (Retrospective reputation, that is: Passage neither improved their commercial status nor gained them any critical recognition at the time — but today it is very easily seen as a brief and powerful upward surge of the creativity curve). Thumbs up at least for the mild bravery, and even more so for the sheer surprise of seeing some of that bravery actually work.

1 comment:

  1. "Sweet, Sweet Smile" was the first song by Carpenters which I heard. It was on one of those bootleg "Best of rock'n'roll vol 5"-type CDs sold in Moscow in 90's where you could get 60's pop, 50's rock'n'roll, garage rock, neo-rockabilly, country and Beatles on the same disc.

    For the long time, it was the only Carpenters song that I knew, but recently I decided to explore the rest of their catalogue... And to my taste, they never wrote anything better. I love this song. That thing Karen does with her voice when she sings the line "I gotta know that you love me, and that you want me" tickles something deep inside me.