First off, a few pieces of housekeeping: Carpenters released their first Christmas album in 1978, it was titled, Christmas Portrait and is the album I’m discussing in this entry. Being big fans of the holiday genre and putting together songs for their 1977 and 1978 Christmas television specials, the siblings recorded far too many holiday songs to fit onto one album, so the additional tracks were shelved, later to surface in the posthumous 1984 Carpenters album, An Old Fashioned Christmas. The second holiday album should have been released as an eight song EP, as it contained only seven songs with Karen’s miraculous lead (“Home For The Holidays,” “Little Alter Boy,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?” "He Came Here For Me,” “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day,” and the 1974 winter single, released almost simultaneously with their #1 hit “Please Mr. Postman,” “Santa Clause Is Coming To Town”). Other than the Karen leads (and the softhearted title track, sung by Richard), An Old Fashioned Christmas is largely forgettable and not recommended. Also in 1984, A&M Records released a “special edition” CD version of Christmas Portrait, which mishandles the entire enterprise altogether, including far too many orchestrations from An Old Fashioned Christmas and completely botching the sequencing of the original Christmas Portrait songs. I highly recommend you avoid the “special edition,” CD/iTunes album and opt, instead, for the 1996 Christmas Collection, which includes both holiday albums, including the original (albeit remixed) Christmas Portrait. You’ve been warned. Now on with the review:
Richard and Karen Carpenter were born to make a Christmas album (and had been interested in doing so since they exploded onto the music scene in 1970), because the Christmas album genre plays so succinctly to their musical strengths: strong vocals, inventive, melodic arrangements, and old-fashioned loveliness. Based loosely on Spike Jones’ 1956 holiday album, It’s A Spike Jones Christmas, to which the siblings grew up listening (and is now available for download on iTunes, as Let’s Sing A Song Of Christmas and is well-worth adding to your holiday collection – note: longtime fans of Christmas Portrait will be surprised at just how much the siblings actually lifted from the Jones’ album), Christmas Portrait includes many of the tunes featured on that album as well as a few sacred songs of the season (i.e., “Silent Night,” “Ave Maria,” and Richard’s lead on the sublime album opener, “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel,” which is followed by a remarkable instrumental overture, building anticipation to Karen’s stunning introductory lead in “The Christmas Waltz”) and a re-recorded version of their 1970 single and Carpenter-penned holiday standard, “Merry Christmas Darling.” Note: while the 1978 recording is far superior, the lovely original version can be found on the boxed set, From The Top, and the repackaged boxed set, The Essential Collection).
Most of the songs from Christmas Portrait were originally introduced to the public via the sibling’s horrendous (and top-rated) 1977 televised Christmas special, The Carpenters At Christmas, which did nothing to endear the duo to rock critics (and that didn’t matter, anyway, as the duo’s non-holiday music career spiraled further and further into Captain And Tennille-chasing, Air Supply-inspiring, adult-contemporary irrelevance/Hell). Replete with cornball skits and tacky, over-the-top dance numbers, the special regularly makes an appearance on YouTube around the holidays and is recommended for completests and Carpenter-philes only (among the ranks of which, of course, I count myself). The music therein, however, is marvelous. The remainder of the songs that made up the eventual Christmas album (strangely, released almost a year later, in October of 1978) was featured on the duo’s 1978 Christmas Special, the aptly titled, Christmas Portrait, which was just as horrific as the first (the television special, that is, where Karen opens with the privileged, oblivious line, "Merry Christmas, EVERYONE!"). But as stated earlier, the music was sublime, including two of my favorite Karen Carpenter vocals, specifically, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” and “Ave Maria,” which, with it’s crazy, high register-to-low register, is almost impossible to sing, yet, Karen Carpenter makes it sound effortless (she reportedly nailed the vocal in one take). Simply exquisite.
But mostly, Richard’s and Karen’s classic Christmas album takes me back to the farm. It takes me back to decorating the Christmas tree on Thanksgiving day with Sis, Jeff, Heather, and Harlan; it takes me back to watching the glow of the tree lights at night and dreaming of what I might find underneath on December 25th (that seemed to take FOREVER to arrive). Christmas Portrait takes me back to Christmas Eve services at church, it takes me back to staying up all night on the 24th with Jeff and Harlan (we were too excited to sleep!), and to rising before dawn, watching with my brothers the torturous, taunting clock creep forward until everyone else eventually arose in the morning. Christmas Portrait takes me back to my father’s handsome, red velvet smoking jacket, to my beautiful mother, who meticulously orchestrated the scrumptious holiday meals, it takes me back to visits from older siblings (from far away and from close by). Christmas Portrait takes me back to waiting my turn to open a present, and to gorging myself on turkey and stuffing, and to eventually passing out from exhaustion by 8pm Christmas night. Christmas Portrait annually reignites those memories and keeps them alive for me. I presume it always will.