They’re sometimes dismissed as soft-rock light-weights, but California’s The Carpenters often captured magical moments of pop perfection. Their stock has risen with endorsements from Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, but the songs were always there, fronted by Karen Carpenter’s voice with its honey ache. Richard Carpenter’s arrangements are radio friendly but interesting – famously the unexpected fuzz guitar solo in ‘Goodbye To Love’. I haven’t been brave enough to venture into the duo’s studio albums, but this twenty song compilation provides an excellent summary of their career.
Based on these twenty songs, their earliest work is their strongest, fresh faced and with Karen’s unique drum work helping to give them a distinctive sound. ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ started as a bank advertisement, but it’s transcendent in its hope, while ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’ is exquisitely melancholic. They can be too sickly sweet on ‘Top of the World’, but songs like ‘Close To You’ and ‘Superstar’ are elegant and enjoyable.
There also a surprising late period highlight, a cover of Klaatu’s ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’, which fashions a terrific record out of questionable elements like a radio voice-over, alien sound effects, and a massed choir. The last recording here, ‘Touch Me When We’re Dancing’ shows the group updating their sound for the 1980s, but Karen lost her battle with anorexia in 1983 and the world lost a very gifted vocalist.
Sure it’s radio friendly, but The Carpenters often projected a sensation that’s comforting, not calculated, and their best songs tapped into a well of emotion.