My Playlist: Carpenters

“Bland”, “saccharine” and “clean-cut.” These are a few attributes music critics used to describe Carpenters back in their heyday. Or how about this commentary by Rolling Stone writer Lester Bangs who felt Richard Carpenter and his sister Karen Carpenter had “the most disconcerting collective stage presence of any band I have seen.” He added promotional photos made them resemble “the cheery innocence of some years-past dream of California youth.” Even if some of the above wasn’t entirely inaccurate, I have no problem admitting I’ve always liked the music by Carpenters.

Before highlighting some of their songs and presenting additional tunes in a playlist at the end of this post, I’d like to provide a bit of background. Richard Carpenter (October 15, 1946) and Karen Carpenter (March 2, 1950) were born in New Haven, Conn. According to a bio on Carpenters’ official website, the siblings’ father Harold Bertram Carpenter “hated the frigid New England winters. So, in June of 1963, the family moved to a suburb of L.A., Downey, California.”

Carpenters Biography

Early in their childhood, Richard and Karen started sharing a common interest in music. Richard picked up the piano at age 8. By the time he was 14, he had decided he wanted to become a professional musician and started taking lessons at Yale School of Music. Karen initially got into playing the glockenspiel, but after enrolling at Downey high school, she discovered her enthusiasm for the drums.

In 1965, the siblings started performing together in the jazz-focused Richard Carpenter Trio. In addition to Richard (piano) and Karen (drums), the group included Wes Jacobs (tuba, standup bass), a friend of Richard’s who he had met the previous year at California State College at Long Beach. After The Richard Carpenter Trio had disbanded in 1967, the siblings went on to form a band called Spectrum. But their music didn’t conform to rock and roll standards at the time, so they dissolved in 1968. Richard and Karen decided to soldier on as a duo and became Carpenters.

The Carpenters (live in australia) 1972- Love Is Surrender - YouTube

In April 1969, Carpenters signed with A&M Records after label owner Herb Alpert had heard and was intrigued by Karen’s voice. Their debut album Offering appeared in October 1969. While it didn’t sell well, a rendition of The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride, which had been arranged by Richard, gave Carpenters their first charting U.S. single on the Billboard Hot 100, where it climbed to no. 54. Their fortune changed drastically with their next single, (They Long to Be) Close to You, a tune written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. It became the first of three songs to top the U.S. mainstream chart and the first of 15 no. 1 singles on the Adult Contemporary (then called Easy Listening) chart.

During their 12-year recording career, Carpenters released nine studio albums, one Christmas album, two live albums, two compilations and approximately 30 singles. This doesn’t include the numerous posthumous releases following the untimely and tragic death of Karen at age 32 from heart failure caused by complications from anorexia nervosa. Let’s get to some music!

My first pick is the aforementioned rendition of Ticket to Ride. Rearranged by Richard Carpenter as a ballad, the tune is from Carpenters’ debut album Offering, which following their breakthrough was reissued internationally under the title Ticket to Ride.

In August 1970, Carpenters issued their sophomore album Close to You. Their breakthrough record surged to no. 2 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200 and topped the charts in Canada. It also did well elsewhere, reaching no. 16, no. 23 and no. 53 in Australia, the UK and Japan, respectively. In no small part, this was due to the above noted hit single (They Long to Be) Close to You.

The hits kept coming on Carpenters’ eponymous third studio album from May 1971. Here’s one of my favorites: Rainy Days and Mondays. The tune was co-written in 1971 by Roger Nichols and Paul Williams. Rainy Days and Mondays was one of the record’s three singles that all topped the Adult Contemporary chart. It also reached no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Top of the World is one of the tunes co-written by Richard Carpenter and John Bettis, who Richard had first met in 1964 in college and who had been a member of Spectrum. Interestingly, Richard who it seems to me had a great sense of songs with hit potential initially didn’t see that for Top of the World. It was only released as a single in September 1973, more than one year after the album A Song for You had come out. The country-flavored tune became one of the Carpenters’ most successful songs, topping the mainstream charts in the U.S., Canada and Australia, and charting in the top 40 in many other countries.

If I recall it correctly, Only Yesterday was the first Carpenters song I ever heard. It was included on some pop sampler my sister had on vinyl. Another composition by Richard Carpenter and John Bettis, Only Yesterday first appeared as a single in March 1975. It also was included on Horizon, the sixth studio album by Carpenters from June 1975.

This brings me to the final song I like to highlight: Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft. This great ballad had first appeared on 3:47 EST, the debut album by Klaatu from August 1976. The Canadian outfit became famous after a 1977 feature story in Providence Journal started speculations Klaatu could be The Beatles or include members of the band. I did a post on the magical mystery in May 2017, which you can read here. This was a quite unusual tune for Carpenters to record, but I think they did a nice job. Their rendition was first released in September 1977 as the second single from their eighth studio album Passage that appeared two weeks thereafter.

Following is a playlist with many additional tunes by Carpenters:

Carpenters have sold more than an estimated 100 million records worldwide as of 2005, making them one of the top-selling music artists of all time. In the U.S. alone, their total sales are believed to be close to 35 million. In the UK, they are ranked as the seventh top-selling albums artist on the official record chart of the 1970s. And in Japan, the pop duo has been the third best-selling international music act behind Mariah Carey and The Beatles.

I think it’s fair to say views of Carpenters’ initial critics have evolved, which isn’t unusual. In this context, Wikipedia notes a series of documentaries in the late ’90s and early 2000s, maintaining they have led to a critical re-evaluation of the pop duo. In December 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Carpenters no. 10 on its list of 20 Greatest Duos of All Time.

During an NPR segment from February 2013 in connection with the 30th anniversary of Karen Carpenter’s death, Paul McCartney called her “the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive.” That’s certainly a bold statement, though I do agree Karen had a beautiful and distinct voice. We’ve Only Just Begun and (They Long to Be) Close to You have received Grammy Hall of Fame awards for recordings of lasting quality or historical significance.

Sources: Wikipedia; Carpenters official website; NPR; YouTube

Music From Down Under That Rocks: Part 3

A two-part musical journey to Australia

‘How can a “two-part musical journey to Australia” have a part 3,’ you might ask. Well, to start with, math has never been my strong suit. I also could have called it ‘le encore’ to the initial two-part mini-series, since that’s what it really is. But I like the concept of a part 3 in a two-part series. Plus at the end of the day, the title matters less than the music.

Parts 1 and 2, which you can read here and here, featured AC/DC, Bee Gees, The Church, Cold Chisel, Crowded House, The Easybeats, INXS, Men At Work, Midnight Oil and Little River Band – or, as Bruce, the man behind the excellent Vinyl Connection, noted, “a pretty good ‘starter pack’ of a certain kind of accessible pop/rock that is, for the most part, radio friendly.” While I leave it up to you to decide whether it’s “pretty good”, I do agree with the radio-friendly part. I realize to some folks pop is a bad word, since they associate it with commercial and selling out. I have no shame to say I like pop, if it’s well crafted. My all-time favorite band The Beatles had plenty of pop. I also think Thriller by Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, is one of the best albums ever recorded.

Australian Music Collage 3

Part 3 or le encore or whatever you’d like to call it was inspired by some great feedback to parts 1 and 2 from readers like Bruce, who clearly know more about music from down under than I do. And that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy this blogging thing. One door opens another, and the more you get into it, the more you realize how little you know – or, how I prefer to view it, how much more there’s to explore! So let’s get to five additional acts from Australia from A to P. And, no, I’m not saying that’s all the land of the vegemite sandwich has to offer, but as the wise George Harrison once said all things must pass.

Ariel

My streaming music provider doesn’t list even one song by this band, which was founded in Melbourne in 1973. But luckily, there’s YouTube. The following mini-bio is based on the website of singer-songwriter and guitarist Mike Rudd and bassist Bill Putt, who were the driving force behind Ariel. The group combined key members from two of Australia’s leading progressive bands of the period: Rudd, Putt and John Mills (keyboards) had come from Melbourne’s Spectrum, while Tim Gaze (guitar) and Nigel Macara (drums) had played in Sydney-based Tamam Shud. Like Spectrum, Ariel began strongly, but lineup changes, record company problems and the changing nature of music in the mid-70s meant that they never achieved the level of success they deserved. Ariel disbanded in July 1977. During their three-and-a-half-year run, they were quite productive, releasing four studio and two live albums. Ariel proved to be Mike Rudd’s last really high-profile outfit, although he remains one of the most respected figures in the music scene. His long-time musical partner Bill Putt passed away in July 2013. Here’s Miracle Man, written by Gaze, a catchy rocker from Ariel’s debut album A Strange Fantastic Dream released in January 1974.

The Go-Betweens

Indie rock band The Go-Betweens were co-founded by singer-songwriters and guitarists Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, the only constant members during the band’s existence. By the time they released their studio debut Send Me a Lullaby in November 1981, Lindy Morrison had joined on drums and vocals, with Forster and McLennan handling vocals and rhythm guitar and vocals, bass and lead guitar, respectively. By 1987, the band also included Amanda Brown (violin, oboe, guitar, keyboards, backing vocals) and John Willsteed (bass, guitar), the lineup until their first breakup in December 1989. After pursuing solo careers during the ’90s, Forster and McLennan revived The Go-Betweens with a new lineup in 2000. That version of the band released three more albums. Following McLennan’s death from a heart attack in May 2006, Forster dissolved the band and resumed his solo career. While The Go-Betweens had strong supporters even among critics – of all people, Robert Christgau called them “the greatest songwriting partnership working today” – chart success largely eluded them, with no top 50 hit in Australia or the UK. Here’s Cattle and Cane from the band’s sophomore album Before Hollywood that appeared in May 1983. Co-written by McLennan and Forster, the tune was also released separately as the record’s lead single. Climbing to no. 4 on the UK Independent Singles Chart, I assume it was their most successful song.

Hoodoo Gurus

Initially called Le Hoodoo Gurus, Hoodoo Gurus, a band I had never heard of before, were formed in Sydney in 1981 by Dave Faulkner (guitar, vocals), James Baker (drums), Roddy Radalj (guitar, vocals) and Kimble Rendall (guitar, vocals). So where the hell is the bassist, you might ask – after all, no bass, no band! Well, I suppose Hoodoo Gurus are an exception that proves the rule! Plus, from what I can see, at least on all of their studio albums, they knew better and had a bassist. The band’s popularity peaked in the mid to late ’80s with their second, third and fourth albums, especially in Australia, where according to Wikipedia they reached “iconic status” on the rock scene. Between 1998 and 2003 and band was on hiatus, while their members pursued side projects and solo work. By early 2003, Hoodoo Gurus had reformed. They have since released three additional albums and remain active to this day. Faulkner is the only original member of their current lineup. Here’s a tune that’s right up my alley: Show Some Emotion written by Faulkner and included on their second album Mars Needs Guitars! Love the jingle-jangle sound that reminds me of The Byrds and R.E.M.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

The band (initially without a name) was founded by Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave in Melbourne in December 1983, which in addition to him included Tracy Pew (bass) and Hugo Race (guitar), or were they? Wikipedia notes an embryonic version of the band that got together in September 1983 in London where Cave lived at the time. Following a short Australian tour, Cave returned to London, where the first consistent lineup emerged with him, Race, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld (guitar, vocals), and Barry Adamson(bass). At that time, they called themselves Nick Cave and the Cavemen. Their debut album From Her to Eternity, a pun on the James Jones novel From Here to Eternity, appeared in June 1984. A biography by Mark Deming on All Music calls them “one of the most original and celebrated bands of the post-punk and alternative rock eras in the ’80s and onward.” The band remains active until today and has released 17 studio albums, the most recent of which is Ghosteen and came out last October. Here’s the official video of Into My Arms, written by Cave, and the opener to the band’s 10th studio album The Boatman’s Call from March 1997.

Powderfinger 

Powderfinger were formed in Brisbane in 1989 by Steven Bishop (drums), John Collins (bass) and Ian Haug (guitar, vocals), who were all students at a local private school. They started out as a cover rock band that among others played songs by Neil Young, whose classic Powderfinger became their name. By 1992, the band had evolved into the lineup that existed until their disbanding in 2010: Haug, Collins, Bernard Fanning (vocals), Darren Middleton (guitar) and Jon Coghill (drums). Following a self-funded EP that appeared on their own label Finger in August 1992, the band released their first full-fledged record Parables For Wooden Ears in July 1994. It was poorly received. But things started to change significantly with their sophomore release Double Allergic that catapulted them to no. 4 on the Australian charts; each of their remaining five studio albums went all the way to the top. Some of their records also charted in New Zealand. It appears their only album that made the Billboard 200 ironically was titled Odyssey Number Five, their fourth studio album from September 2000. That’s unfortunate. From the aforementioned album, here’s the catchy My Happiness credited to all members of the band.

Sources: Wikipedia; Mike Rudd and Bill Putt website; All Music; YouTube