Rating: 5
Squirm factor: 3
    In which the Carpenters freak out.
    By the mid-seventies, the Carpenters had become victims of a formula they never intended to create.  Their early glorious successes were surprising to everyone because of the unorthodox nature of the group's style.  Although their sound was beloved by housewives and Paul Anka fans, it was by no means a throwback to pre-rock pop.  Rather, the Carpenters adapted rock-style tunes to their naturally lush vocal and orchestral inclinations.  Because the sources of their hits were so eclectic -- a bank jingle, a filler tune from a Joe Cocker live album, a Dionne Warwick ballad slowed to a crawl -- one couldn't say what, exactly, was the key to their success, other than the duo's wide-ranging interests and keen ears (and, of course, one of the classic twentieth-century voices).
    But after a while, Carpenters records started to sound like "Carpenters records."   As Richard Carpenter went from Ambitious-Kid-from-Downey to Internationally-Respected-Musician, his range of influences narrowed, possibly due to record company pressure, more likely due to not having enough time to hang out in the record store.  And so he began choosing songs by writers hoping to score a Carpenters record, and tailored to sound like previous hits.  Even moves which had once been daring, even controversial -- like the fuzz guitar on "Goodbye to Love" -- became de rigeur.  It didn't help that he began to think that he and Karen weren't good enough to play on their own records, bringing in hired guns on keyboards and drums.  On keyboards, it was no big loss -- Richard's a fine player, but not distinctive.  But on drums, it made a tremendous difference for the worse.  As any good arranger knows, the drummer can make or break a song, and Karen Carpenter had a uniquely sensitive drumming style: largely derived from Ringo Starr's late sixties work, it features a light touch on the snare, lopsided tom fills, and a great sense of dynamics.  Once she stepped off the drum stool, Carpenters records grew duller.
     After their first flush of success, things became increasingly straight-jacketed.  By 1975, the albums were full of formulaic originals and uninteresting covers, all performed without much inspiration.  It must have been at this point that the Carpenters decided to go back to the old way of doing things: just take a bunch of songs they like, regardless of how well they fit the formula, and cut them with their own arrangements. 
    Unfortunately, by 1977 the Carpenters' touch wasn't as deft as it had been at the beginning of the decade.  While a number of these songs are moderately interesting, the old habits of reliance on studio musicians means that instead a special Carpenters sound, the Passage album is just another L.A. middle-of-the-road album with some great vocals.  It's hard to picture what Richard thought was the appeal for Carpenters fans in a long jazzy jam (featuring neither of the Carpenters) on "Bwana She No Home", or the world's stiffest calypso arrangement in "Man Smart, Woman Smarter."  There are a couple formula numbers in "I Just Fall in Love Again" and "Two Sides", but neither rise above the competent. 
    However, there are two truly outlandish tracks here that deserve mention.  "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" is an aria from the rock opera Evita (you've probably seen the Madonna film).  It's a pretty good song, and has managed to work its way into many a Muzak program.  What's really odd about the Carpenters' arrangement is their decision to include the operatic recitative sections preceding the song proper.  So there are all these hysterical opera singers spewing their vibrato all over, and then Karen enters with her lush, casual voice.  It's almost hilarious, but the sheer presence of that voice overcomes all qualms about what preceded it.  A magisterial performance.
    The other great song is "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft."  Although it features what is likely the cheesiest spoken intro in the history of recorded sound (extraterrestrial aliens phoning in to a radio DJ), the body of the song is Richard Carpenter's greatest achievement as a producer.  It's a gentle melody that, in the Klaatu original, doesn't make much impression.  But Richard's arrangement, with prodding strings, romantic woodwinds, burbling synths, and a brilliant coda that builds and builds, adding endless details like horn fanfares, a pipe organ, and a choir, perfectly evokes the spirit of adventure in the lyrics.  It's one the best recordings of the decade, and proves that even a burned-out studio obsessive can tap into the mystic once in a while.
    Unfortunately, the album was a relative flop, and the Carpenters spent the rest of their career treading through the shallow waters of Christmas albums and MOR schlock.  It's sad to see a muse wither as badly as theirs did.

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