Saturday, December 28, 2013

“Now & Then,” by Carpenters

Now And Then was released in May of 1973 and is considered by many fans to be the duo's last album with the “classic” Carpenters sound. I’m inclined to agree. It featured two of their biggest hits, “Sing,” (#3, 1973) and the Carpenter-penned song about the early-1970’s “oldies” resurgence, “Yesterday Once More,” (#2, 1973), which became their biggest selling single, worldwide. While a bestseller at the time (and beyond the mysterious, trifold album artwork – is it a photograph? is it a painting? why aren’t they smiling – they were always smiling…? why is Karen’s face obscured? And their actual house loomed in the background, showing the upstairs bedroom window where Karen would collapse less than 10 years later, never to be resuscitated…), of their early albums, Now And Then tends to be their most overlooked and underappreciated these days, as it was, among other things, quirky, eclectic, eerie, joyful, eccentric, melancholy, silly, mysterious, and a TON of fun. In fact, I consider the album one of the most artsy in their canon (except, perhaps, their obscure and seldom-discussed debut, Offering, later repacked as, Ticket To Ride). The concept for Now And Then celebrated the “oldies,” as well as newer songs, having side one of the album consist of “contemporary” songs and side two focus on songs made popular about 10 years earlier.

The “contemporary” side was mostly that, I guess, except it featured a children’s song from television and a classic tune written over 20 years earlier, Hank Williams’ 1952 #1 Country smash, “Jambalaya (On The Bayou).” Hmm. I smell a concept fail. The duo wisely selected for side one Leon Russell’s, “This Masquerade,” which was an outstanding album track and remains a perennial fan favorite that probably should have been the lead-off single, or at least the follow-up to “Sing,” if, for nothing else, credibility purposes. And by the way, I love “Sing.” It’s simple. It’s sweet. “Sing. Sing a song. Make it simple to last your whole life long…” What’s not to love about that? But I’m guessing my fondness has more to do with my being 2 or 3 when it was ubiquitous on the radio that spring and it is a children’s song, after all, and Vh1 used it (affectionately, I think) on a promo a few years ago and it was from Sesame Street, and sigh…oh, what the hell? I just love it. The pretty piano instrumental, “Heather,” adds emotional depth to the proceedings on the first side, but (while absolutely beautiful) for the duo to record a song titled, “I Can’t Make Music,” at that point in their careers…it was just asking for potshots from rock journalists.

The “oldies” side consisted of a medley of the following early 1960’s tunes in this order: “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “The End Of The World,” “Da Do Run-Run,” “Dean Man’s Curve,” Johnny Angel,” “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes,” “Our Day Will Come,” and “One Fine Day.” Interspersed among the pop hits was Carpenters band member, Tony Peluso, playing the role of over-the-top radio DJ, complete with playful, shticky banter and even a “guess the golden oldies” radio contest. Peluso would reprise this role four years later as the DJ communicating with Martians (yes, you read that correctly) at the beginning of the duo’s 1977 top 40 hit, “Calling Occupants (Of Interplanetary Craft).” While certainly serving the concept of side two, in my view, the DJ banter pulls attention away from some remarkable vocals from sister Karen, most notably on “The End Of The World” and “Our Day Will Come,” which, in expanded versions, might have made exceptional singles.

In fact, the oldies/medley side contained some of Karen’s best vocal performances (an opinion the Reader’s Digest Collection vindicated some 25 years later, including the medley in remixed form and without the DJ shtick), with my only suggestion to the oldies side being that the siblings might have done well to include hits from back further, like “The Wayward Wind,” “It’s All In The Game,” “Que Sera, Sera,” “Chances Are,” and “You Send Me,” all which seem to have influenced the duo much more than “Da Do Run-Run” or “Dead Man’s Curve.” Who is with me on this?

Lambasted by critics upon its release, Now And Then was, perhaps understandably, but also unfairly judged as the artistic statement the duo wanted to make at that time. In reality, the album was hurriedly recorded amidst a breakneck schedule of touring and television appearances. Richard Carpenter wrote, “…as the limited time we had to record the album approached, it was clear to me that we had only enough material to complete one side of an LP, and even that was by completing a track we had recorded in 1972, ‘Jambalaya.’ Fortunately, we had an ace up our collective sleeve, resulting in a damn good album which became a worldwide bestseller: Karen and I introduced an oldies medley into our concert show starting in the summer of 1972, and it met with such an enthusiastic response, I decided to feature a version of it on side two of what would become Now And Then.

This album was followed by more breakneck touring for the duo in 1973 and 1974, which gave them precious little time to record the highly-anticipated follow-up, Horizon (1975). In the year that followed and to keep the duo on the radio, their record label mined two more gems from their classic, 1972 album, A Song For You, “Top Of The World” (#1, 1973) and “I Won’t Last A Day Without You,” (#11, 1974) as well as a Christmas-themed single, a jazzy reworking of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” late in 1974, but the true follow-up single wasn’t released until December of 1974, the duo’s final #1, a cover of the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” and another retread of the oldies theme, a motif they would continue to pillage (“A Kind Of Hush,” #12/1976, and “Goofus,” #56/1976) through their final album with Karen, Made In America (“BE-echwood 4-5789, #74/1982).

The follow-up album, Horizon, was an intentional departure, demonstrating that the duo was interested in expanding beyond the trend-setting, early 1970s sound that brung ‘em to the dance. Horizon was musically complicated and thematically sophisticated. It was an album for grown-ups, whereas Now And Then seemed to have been recorded with the kiddos in mind. Maybe as a result, it seems to be the last album the siblings recorded where they seemed to be having any fun, which makes it a bittersweet listen today. In fact, while successive albums had moments of levity, the later albums found the duo trying too hard: to have hits, to be hip, to sound “different,” to be taken seriously. But on this album, in this moment in time, the siblings seemed to be in high spirits, and their art reflected this boundless joy - blissfully ignorant of the tragedy that lie ahead. And if for no other reason, Now And Then is noteworthy for that.