I don't know what it is about spring, but it brings out the nostalgic side of me. When I decided to listen to the Carpenters' 1971 album Carpenters the other day, I also decided to give their sophomore album, Close To You (1970), a spin. Close To You is the album that put the Carpenters "on the map", so to speak, since it included two of the duo's biggest hits, "Close To You" and "We've Only Just Begun".
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To be honest, I resisted buying this album for the longest time. Thanks to Richard Carpenter's incessant packaging and re-packaging of the Carpenters' music over the years, I already had a number of copies of "Close To You" and "We've Only Just Begun" in my music collection, along with a couple of Close To You's deeper cuts. But I finally gave in the other day, just because I was in a spending mood.
Close To You runs for about 39 minutes and consists of twelve songs.
Close To You begins with the gentle love song, "We've Only Just Begun". This song, written by Roger Nichols and Paul Williams, was famously discovered when Richard Carpenter was watching television. A commerical for the Crocker Bank came on and this song was used as its jingle. Richard Carpenter heard a massive hit in that commercial and immediately set about recording it. Richard was right, of course... it's the perfect vehicle for Karen Carpenter's lovely voice. It's a wedding staple as well as the song most people would call the Carpenters' "signature song".
Karen Carpenter's talents on percussion are highlighted in the jazzy "Love Is Surrender", a song I heard the first time while watching The Karen Carpenter Story, a television movie about the duo. I actually really like this song, even though Richard sings a verse. For one thing, it really shows off the Carpenters' early jazz roots, as well their affiliation with the great trumpeter, Herb Alpert. It's a short but refreshing number.
"Love Is Surrender" fades into a sweet love song called "Maybe It's You", a song that begins with Richard's gentle piano playing and Karen's sweet, low vocals. This song was written by Richard Carpenter with lyrics by John Bettis, a songwriter who was a friend of the Carpenters' and wrote a lot of their best known hits. This song is a little like Muzak with its oboe solo, but it's still very pleasant to listen to.
Next comes a snappy rendition of "Reason To Believe", a song that was made famous (and done better) by Rod Stewart. Written by Tim Hardin, this song uses a lot of electronic keyboards and bass guitar. Karen Carpenter does a nice job with the melody, but the arrangement is a little schmaltzy.
The Carpenters meet the Beatles with a cover of "Help!". The Carpenters had previously tackled the Beatles with a rendition of "Ticket To Ride" on their debut album, Offering. "Ticket To Ride" was fairly well known, but I don't remember ever hearing this version of "Help!" before I listened to Close To You. That's a pity, because I really like what the Carpenters did with this song. It almost sounds like honest to God rock n' roll. Richard uses what sounds like a Hammond organ and the song is arranged with staccato beats and a saucy tambourine beat. They made this song their own... I could actually conceive of this version of "Help!" being used today in a movie or commercial.
"(They Long To Be) Close To You" is next... and if you haven't heard this song, you must have been living under a rock. Like a lot of Carpenters' songs, this one has a story attached to it. Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, "Close To You" had been recorded by Richard Chamberlain and Dionne Warwick before the Carpenters did it. But the Carpenters' version, with its hammy "wahhhhhh" chorus, remains the defininitive styling of this song, which is another wedding staple. Yeah, this song is a little corny, but I never get tired of it. The nice thing about having the album version of "Close To You" is that it gets an extended ending, instead of the usual radio fadeout.
"Baby It's You" is another Burt Bacharach number that was co-written by Mack David and Paul Williams. I've always thought it was funny that Close To You had this song and "Maybe It's You" on it. It doesn't help that "Baby It's You" sounds a bit like "Maybe It's You". The Carpenters do a fine job with this song, which really highlights the Carpenters' overdubbing technique and allows them to provide some gorgeous harmonies. This song also has Burt Bacharach's musical stamp all over it.
"I'll Never Fall In Love Again" is another Burt Bacharach gem and this song is delightfully rendered by Karen Carpenter's tongue in cheek reading. This song was originally written for the musical Promises, Promises, but Richard and Karen make it sound like it was meant to be a pop song. I love the lyrics, which reminds listeners of all the pitfalls of falling in love.
"Crescent Noon" is another composition by John Bettis and Richard Carpenter. It's a gentle, elegant, understated ballad sung in a minor key. As a singer myself, I admire Karen Carpenter's skill on this song, which I can tell must have presented a breathing challenge with its extended verses. This song is surprisingly timeless. I never would have guessed it was recorded 40 years ago.
"Mr. Guder" offers listeners a little comic relief. This song, also written by Richard Carpenter and John Bettis, is about a boss the two once endured working with at Disneyland. The song is a little jazzy, with lyrics about their uptight boss who ran a tight ship and made them "shine their shoes and keep a neat haircut". The end of this song is really impressive, as Richard and Karen have a chance to show off their rhythm and harmony.
"I Kept On Loving You" begins an acoustic guitar solo... and then Richard Carpenter starts to sing. He actually sounds pretty good on this song. His vocals here remind me a little of Eric Woolfson's (of the Alan Parson's Project). He doesn't even lisp that much on this song. It works pretty well and runs for only two minutes.
Close To You ends with "Another Song", a song that was written by Richard Carpenter and John Bettis. It begins with a Wurlitzer electric keyboard with a melody that sounds like it was inspired by the Bach/Gounod version of Ave Maria (which the Carpenters eventually recorded). Then it turns into a dramatic pop song that sounds mysterious and exotic, as if it was inspired by the Middle East. Toward the middle of this song, Richard and Karen Carpenter get to show the world just how much freakin' musical talent they have, with a complicated instrumental portion accented with flutes and Karen's flawless drumming.
It's hard to reconcile how a group that can make music like this can also be known for saccharine yet insipid pop songs. Something tells me that if they didn't have to please the powers that be in the record and radio industries, Richard and Karen Carpenter would have made some truly astonishing musical masterpieces.
I think this is a pretty strong album. In fact, there's not a song on Close To You that I would skip. There are some songs that I like better than others, of course, but none that I think of as clunkers. I'm glad I finally got around to buying Close To You, particularly for the deeper cuts. I highly recommend it to Carpenters fans everywhere.
For more information: www.richardandkarencarpenter.com
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