The year was 1979. Karen and Richard had been working on an album the year before, but that album was shelved due to a variety of health and personal problems. Richard, in fact, felt he needed to take some time off to seek treatment for prescription drug dependence. A&M Records felt the time was right to pursue a solo album for Karen, and even though Karen was unsure about the whole idea of recording without Richard, and Richard himself was against the idea, she agreed to do it. Richard finally gave her his blessing to go do the project, but with this piece of advice: "Don't do any disco!"
So Karen went off to New York to work with veteran producer Phil Ramone. A bunch of songs were chosen, work leads were recorded, and songs were completed. The album was mixed, artwork designed, and everything was ready to go. Karen took the album back to California so that Richard and the A&M executives could listen to it. After hearing it, their reaction was less than enthusiastic, and the decision was made to shelve the album, rather than risk a disaster.
The album is made up of a variety of different types of songs; there are pop songs, light rock, disco, ballads. And while some of these styles were different than anything we've heard the Carpenters do, the sound of Karen's vocals and overdubbed harmonies is quite Carpenters-esque.
There are two things about this album that are very different, however. The first is something that I really enjoy hearing: Phil Ramone really pushed Karen to expand her sound. He makes quite a bit of use of her upper range, and her phrasing and vocal support are often different. Richard said once that he always just "let Karen sing," meaning he didn't really tell her what to do in the recording studio, but Phil Ramone apparently gave her a lot of instruction on how he wanted it done.
The second thing that is different about this album is the choice of material. These are not the same old love songs or reminiscences about yesterday. These are songs of sexuality and sensuality. These are songs with an edge, sung from the perspective of someone who has been around the block, so to speak. While I personally like hearing something completely different from Karen, these songs really don't sound right coming from her. She doesn't sound "convinced" about what she's saying in many of the songs.
But there are so many wonderful moments on this album. As I've said before, "If I Had You" is an incredible song! "Making Love in the Afternoon" (with Peter Cetera) and "Still In Love with You" are deliciously hard-edged. "All Because of You" and "Still Crazy After All These Years" are so unlike any ballad Karen ever sang before.
And then there's the disco. The album opens with "Lovelines," which is quite disco, but nothing can prepare the listener for "My Body Keeps Changing My Mind," which is pretty much a textbook case for a disco song. When I first heard it, I was embarassed for Karen (releasing that song in 1980, after the death of disco, could have been a REALLY bad career move), but I've come to really enjoy the song. It's just plain fun, in a campy way.
The sixteen years that it took to get this album released have changed its perception in the public's eye. Instead of a somewhat desperate attempt to breathe life into a faltering career, it is now viewed as a cherished period piece, a fascinating glimpse into a part of history that we feel privileged to be able to hear. The CD of Karen Carpenter is presented exactly as Phil Ramone intended it in 1980 (with the addition of the bonus track). No remixes took place here.
Karen's solo project doesn't end with the album. Legend always told us that she recorded work leads for 23 songs, and though not all 23 of those songs were completed, the recordings do exist.
We have 12 tracks accounted for on the album (11 completed songs and one work lead added as a "bonus" track on the CD). That leaves us with another 11 songs still in the vaults at A&M.
The "bonus" track on the CD is "Last One Singin' the Blues." This was included, presumably, to show the audience that the remaining unreleased tracks were in a very rough form, not at all completed and ready to go. "Last One Singin' the Blues" is indeed rough; Karen gives instructions to the band twice during the song, and it is sparsely instrumented.
I have had the amazing privilege of hearing nine of the unreleased tracks from this album, and I was very surprised at what I heard! Two of the tracks, "Love Making Love to You" and "Don't Try to Win Me Back" are completed tracks, with backing vocals and full instrumentation. These were ready to go, and at some point the decision must have been made not to include them on the album.
The other seven tracks that I heard are indeed work tracks, similar to "Last One Singin' the Blues," but actually less rough-sounding. These songs are: "Something's Missing," "Keep My Love Light Burning," "Midnight," "Jimmy Mack," "I Do It For Your Love," "Truly You" and "It's Really You." Some of these are good songs, some are just OK.
However, there is potential to turn these work tracks into completed songs, like was done with "Now" or "Tryin' To Get the Feeling Again." Richard could strip away everything but the lead vocals, lay in new keyboards, percussion, guitar, backing vocals, etc., and actually have "new" Carpenters' songs. At the very least, there is the possibility of having a second solo album from Karen.
Only two songs remain unaccounted for: "Basket Case" and "Church Choir (Wild)." I don't know anything about them, but I would certainly be interested in hearing them.
Produced by Phil Ramone
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