Perfect Sound Forever

Karen and Richard Carpenter

Two Rock Stars: An Appreciation of Now & Then
By Robin E. Cook

"The Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Bacharach." Richard Carpenter allegedly claimed these were the Carpenters' influences. The juxtaposition of those three names shows how fluid the line between genres truly was in the prepsychedelic 1960s. Burt Bacharach's name might be synonymous with "square," "standard pop," and "uncool nonrock" to those bending over backwards to be hip. But then, "The Look of Love" was a hit for the decidedly unsquare Dusty Springfield before Brasil '66 took it to the Top 10. The Beatles, meanwhile, were a rarity--a rock band whose influence extended beyond the generation gap. This would explain the easy-listening cover versions (by Brasil '66 among others) as well as attempts by prerock "squares" to tackle the Fab Four's material, with varying results.

The Beach Boys, meanwhile, predated the British Invasion, and they were in an odd spot. By the early 1970's, pre-Beatles rock and roll was considered "oldies" even though it was at most a decade and a half old. Carole King, one of the architects of the early rock songbook, sidestepped the "oldies" trap with Tapestry, which sounded light years away from the Brill Building but fit in with the singer-songwriter ethos. Meanwhile, Barbra Streisand, who was the same age as King, had abandoned Broadway to sing "Stoney End" and work with the all-female rock band Fanny.

Richard and Karen Carpenter stepped into the gulf between cool and square, mellow and edgy. At their best, they balanced these aspects superbly. During their commercial height, however, they seemed to be throwbacks to an earlier, mellower, squarer era. In the 1970s, when laid-back aesthetics and hipster cred could coexist (hello, James Taylor!), they just weren't considered acceptable to like.

In 1990, the Carpenters finally achieved that hipster cred with Sonic Youth's "Tunic (Song for Karen)," sung by Kim Gordon, who was unashamed to call herself a fan. Meanwhile, Rolling Stone acknowledged Karen's interpretive brilliance: "No one could fill up, and out, a melody or cut to the blood and guts of the ickiest love song as she could."

The Carpenters' output was light on icky love songs, however. What were their best-known hits? Sad songs like "Goodbye to Love." Detours like "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft." "We've Only Just Begun" and "For All We Know" were songs of love in its infancy, more wistful than sappy.

And then there were the siblings' cover versions of rock hits. They approached "Ticket to Ride," "There's a Kind of Hush," and "Please Mr. Postman" from the inside, as the baby boomers and rock fans they were. Now & Then, released in 1973, is one of the odder and more ambitious outings in the Carpenters' catalog, with Karen and Richard trying out different pop guises and personas before returning to their roots (which would explain the album's title).

"Sing" was written by Sesame Street composer Joe Raposo, which is probably why it sounds like it would fit on a children's record. And if the Carpenters were supposed to be clean-cut, why not record a song as sweet-natured and shiny-clean as this one? With a children's chorus joining Karen, no less. (Why Karen and Richard never appeared on Sesame Street or did a children's album remains one of the mysteries of life.)

"This Masquerade" is the third Leon Russell song to get the Carpenters treatment (the others were "A Song for You" and "Superstar"). George Benson, of course, made the song a hit years later, and his version is a smooth-jazz guitar workout. The Carpenters' rendition, meanwhile, is closer to cocktail jazz. As she often did, Karen Carpenter keeps the song from drifting into outright schmaltz, and her pensive delivery suits the lyrics' theme of unhappy confusion in relationships.

"Heather" is an anomaly: a shimmering instrumental and a showcase for Richard's piano prowess. Originally titled "Autumn Reverie," "Heather" was written by British composer Johnny Pearson, whose career shares traits with the Carpenters'. As The Guardian noted in its obituary for Pearson, "he had the skills to bridge the gap between the genteel light music of the post-second world war years and the brash new pop of the 1960s," serving as orchestra leader of Top of the Pops and arranging hits for Cilla Black.

"Jambalaya" veers close to kitsch, however. It's also the only song on the album where Karen doesn't play drums (Hal Blaine does). On "I Can't Make Music," Karen sounds as if she's going through the motions. Or maybe she is saving her energy for what comes next (which, in the LP days, was side two--the "Then" portion).

"Yesterday Once More" is the jewel on this album, a paean to the early rock era. It's the only Richard Carpenter/John Bettis song here, and one of their finest compositions. Karen's heart-on-sleeve approach matches the lyrics perfectly. There's no campy nostalgia here, simply yearning for "the good times that I had" evoked by her favorite childhood hits.

The song fades into the sound of a car engine, and the siblings spend the rest of the album romping through a medley of pre-British Invasion rock hits. As mentioned earlier, the oldies in this medley weren't old. "Fun, Fun, Fun," the first song, was released only nine years before. Nonetheless, guitarist Tony Peluso doubles as DJ, asking, "Where were you when this song was number ONE?"

The Carpenters had transformed "Ticket to Ride" into a lovelorn ballad, but there are no drastic reinterpretations here. The performances and arrangements are faithful to the original songs without sounding retro. There are contemporary (for 1973) flourishes, for example, a fierce guitar solo on "Da Doo Ron Ron." Karen and Richard don't rock out in the early 1970s sense of the term, but they certainly do in the early 1960s sense, and they sound like they're having the time of their lives. The upbeat songs slightly outnumber the ballads. There's even a nod to the teen-death-song trend as Richard sings "Dead Man's Curve."

This medley, however, is a showcase for Karen, who stretches herself a vocalist, acting as her own background chorus on "Johnny Angel." It's as if the "sha-la-la-las" and "shing-a-ling-a-lings" (to quote "Yesterday Once More") have revived something in her. Or maybe it's the song itself. Unrequited love was a familiar lyrical theme to her (see: "Superstar"). "Johnny Angel" is a more innocent take on the subject. Even when Richard takes the mike, Karen's backing vocals offer a glossy yet vivacious counterpoint, as on "Dead Man's Curve." And, of course, she handles all the drum duties.

Of all the songs in the medley, "Our Day Will Come" is the one that could have been stretched out and released in its entirety. With Karen's blissfully romantic delivery and Richard's sparkling piano, this two-minute snippet is superior to Frankie Valli's discofied version.

On "Tunic (Song for Karen)," Kim Gordon imagines Karen Carpenter befriending Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin in the afterlife. As Now & Then comes to an end, this scenario seems happily possible for those who believe in rock and roll heaven. Perhaps Gordon was on to something as she sang, "I'm playing the drums again too / Don't be sad─the band doesn't sound half bad."

Also see our 2013 article on the Carpenters

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