Keep or Cull: The Carpenters – The Singles 1974-1978

IMG_20200220_150544Karen Carpenter had one of the most beautiful voices in pop music.

It was rich and resonant.

Somewhat melancholy.

And yet there was a sweetness, a lightness, to it that prevented rainy days and Mondays from getting you too down.

Because in anyone else’s hands, a song like the one I am referencing could have turned very bleak.

Carpenter was half of The Carpenters, a duo that really eptiomized 70s pop radio.

Politely produced to the point where it was almost scrubbed of any character, their songs really got over not just because they were drawing on talents like Paul Williams but also because Carpenter’s contralto gave them weight, or import.

She made them come alive.

And yet, she thought of herself as a drummer who sang.

But that voice brought her out from behind her kit into the spotlight, something she was not initially comfortable with.

That voice helped make The Carpenters a constant presence on the charts, starting with their cover of Ticket to Ride, a modest hit in 1969, through to their last minor hit, a cover of Beachwood 4-5789.

In fact, they had enough hits that, just four years after their first one, The Carpenters were anthologized by A&M with The Singles: 1969-1973.

Just five years later, another compilation appeared, this time gathering up everything from 1974-1978.

IMG_20200220_150613According to Discogs, it was released in the UK, Canada, and a couple of other countries, but not the U.S., where sales of their records had tapered off considerably.

Looking at the track listing, you can kind of see why.

There is one indisputable classic here that could and should have been on that first set of hits.

I Won’t Last a Day Without You.

Written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols, that song was initially released in 1972 on A Song for You, but it was not released as a single until 1974.

So it really does belong on the first set.

The other songs on here are not at that level, but there are a couple that are relatively nice, such as Sweet, Sweet Smile, which Juice Newton co-wrote, intending to cut it herself.

And there is the absolutely odd choice of Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, a song written and recorded by Klaatu, a band that, for a brief moment, was thought to be The Beatles incognito.

But with one notable exception, nothing quite sticks with you the way that the songs on the first set of singles.

Even Karen seems a bit lost in the increasingly slick productions to the point where the longing and bittersweetness that added ache to songs like Superstar or Sing has been smoothed over, and you can hear why some critics dismissed them as saccharine, and why A&M declined to put this out in the U.S.

The selections just lack the tension, the sentiment, the depth that Karen applied to make The Carpenters stand out from other glossy radio fare.

If you want to hear her at her finest, that first singles collection is a must.

With every sha-la-la-la, every whoa-whoa-whoa, she makes it feel like yesterday once more.

So this one is a cull for me.

 

 

 

Keep or Cull – Renaissance’s Azure d’Or

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First up, Renaissance, a band that, even in the twisty world of prog rock, have a complicated history.

Formed from the ashes of The Yardbirds, the original lineup featured Keith Relf and Jim McCarty (as well as Keith’s sister), but the band started disintegrating before completing its second album, Illusion.

The then-keyboardist, John Hawken, brought in a couple musicians, including Michael Dunford, from his previous group,  Nashville Teens to try and finish that album

And then the original band, without Hawken, regrouped to do more work on it.

By the third album, Prologue, there were no original members at all, although McCarty contributed material.

As did Dunford, who would rejoin the band a couple of years later.

Confused?

Well, the original Renaissance, except for Keith Relf, who had passed away, reunited in the mid 70s as Illusion.

If the story of the band is very much like that of any prog rock band, the sound was somewhat unique.

Unlike pretty much every prog rock band, Renaissance was not entirely dominated by men.

Annie Haslam was their vocalist.

And many of their lyrics were written by Betty Thatcher, and that combination made their best material stand out from, say, Genesis or Yes.

Azure d’Or was their ninth album, and their last for Sire.

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You could be forgiven for thinkng that they are some kind of sketch comedy group based on that photo.

Azure d’Or was released in 1979, but apart from some synthesizer colorations, you’d never know it.

And it certainly doesn’t sound like anything you’d expect from the label that signed or licensed artists like The Ramones, The Replacements, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Smiths, and Madonna.

Azure d’Or is the sound of a band trapped in amber.

Something preserved.

But not like Lark’s Tongue in Aspic.

There is a quaintness about it.

A sense that it was recorded half a decade earlier, unearthed, tatted out with some synths, and sent out in the world with fingers crossed.

But between the production and the material, it didn’t connect with me.

It’s pretty, but it doesn’t really have that otherness that defined other prog bands like King Crimson, Genesis, and Yes.

It’s all smooth, pretty, and it settles comfortably into the background.

The only thing tactile about it is the cover, which has raised textures.

Otherwise, it doesn’t seem like what you’d associated with Sire Records.

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Of course, Sire had been around for several years before it filled its roster with artists like Talking Heads, Madness, and The (English) Beat, and for much of its early years, it had licensed a bunch of odd UK artists, including Renaissance, so there is a whole other history that, if you followed that, would make its punk and new wave titles seem odd.

I played this a few times and I cannot remember any aspects of it a few days on, except that it was a bit too well produced, a bit too pretty, a bit too elegant to resonate with me.

Don’t get me wrong, Annie’s singing is exemplary, the musicians are accomplished, and so there is clear talent on display.

But the songs are a bit too ethereal.

And the band sounds like it has tapped out it’s creative potential a bit.

In fact, the band splintered following the album’s release.

There have been subsequent Renaissance albums by various combinations of members, but I haven’t heard them.

I do have a few albums that precede this one, so now I want to revisit those and see how they sound.

At some point.

I have thousands of others to choose from.

And I add more regularly.

So this will be a long ongoing project.

But the verdict on this one is to cull it.

 

Mark Hollis

Few artists had the career trajectory that Mark Hollis and his collaborators in Talk Talk had.

Many musical acts start out on the fringes and move to the center, shaving off the eccentricities and otherness to become more palatable.

But Hollis and Talk Talk went the other way.

Not to deliberately alienate audiences.

But to arrive at something that was true to his and their artistic vision.

Something really worth their effort, and yours as a listener.

Continue reading “Mark Hollis”

Jessica Pratt – Aeroplane

I thought Pratt’s On Your Own Love Again was the best album of 2015, and I am feeling confident her new album, Quiet Signs, out Feb. 8, will be a strong contender for best album of 2019.

What strikes me about the material I’ve heard so far is how she has used the canvas of a recording studio to make something even more intimate and gossamer-like than her previous 4-track work.

Like if you opened your eyes while listening to it, it would end the way a dream does.

Anyway, very strongly encouraging you to pick up her new album when it comes out, especially since RTI is pressing it, so it should be flat, centered, and quiet, which almost describes her music.

Arctic Monkeys–Four Out of Five

I am not quite sure why the new Arctic Monkeys album has met with the kind of backlash it has.

Yes, it is a change up in the band’s sound, but I think it is a logical one, saving it from a long painful decline into stultifying sameness.

If anything, it reminds me a lot of early Bowie, and had the Thin White Duke dropped an album like this during his wilderness years of the 80s and 90s, everyone would have called it some kind of return to form.

Instead, it just seems to have left folks feeling confused and disappointed.

I’ve spun it a few times since it came out last week, and I’ve come away thinking it may be their best, but I’m still trying to articulate why.

In part, it is the sheer bravado of it.

I also appreciate the humor of tracks like Four Stars Out of Five, which suggests Alex Turner was anticipating the backlash while demonstrating he remains a peerless lyricist with a sharp mind and an even sharper tongue.

I’ve seen a few reviews refer to it as a ‘grower’ and I think that’s accurate in the way that the best albums keep revealing themselves to you long after you first encounter them, but I am guessing for others this one is requiring considerable acclimation.

I may try to unpack my thoughts more in a later post, but I definitely consider this one of the year’s best so far.