For anyone accustomed to hearing her virginal delivery on mope-pop standards like ”Goodbye to Love,” few things will be more disconcerting than the sound of Karen Carpenter loving to love you, baby. ”My body says love you tonight/You drive me out of my mind,” she swoons on Karen Carpenter, the late singer’s aborted solo album. Elsewhere, on a song with the uncharacteristically racy title of ”Remember When Lovin’ Took All Night,” she sings, ”I feel your arms starting a fire all over me/Baby, I know what your arms can do.” For the first time in her brief career, Carpenter wanted to be the temptress, instead of the girl, next door.
The record, Karen’s first project without her Dutch-boy-haired older brother and partner, Richard, was recorded in 1979 and early 1980 while Richard was recovering from an addiction to pills. Soon after its completion, it was shelved, for reasons still unclear. (Richard’s liner notes say it was her decision, but Ray Coleman’s biography The Carpenters: The Untold Story claims that Richard and A&M executives decided the album was not up to par; indeed, Coleman suggests Richard took the very idea of the album, produced by Phil Ramone, as an affront to the pristine production style he had perfected on the Carpenters’ oeuvre.) Several of its songs have appeared on earlier compilations, but Karen Carpenter marks the first time the project has been released in its entirety.
Ramone, best known for adding an upscale, Bloomingdale’s sheen to the work of Paul Simon and Billy Joel, decided to take the same approach with his new client. Using New York session pros, he set Carpenter’s voice adrift on light, fluttery disco (heavy on the peppy flutes), mild rock, and singer-songwriter pop. Only a few tracks (the best on the album, ironically) recall the sweet-and-dour sound Richard created for their duo hits. Ramone also sought to dispel her G-rated image — hence a song like ”My Body Keeps Changing My Mind,” a frothy glitter-ball trifle that, given her anorexia-related death a few years later, seems truly creepy now.
It’s easy to hear why A&M was hesitant about the album. Certainly the material was no worse — if not better — than the ditties Richard often saddled her with. But without Richard’s lush choral arrangements framing her voice, Carpenter reaches to sound perky and, in doing so, blands herself out. (The beauty of the best Carpenters songs is the way in which Karen’s darkly tinged voice seemed to recognize that a trace of melancholy can be found in even the happiest of times.) At moments on Karen Carpenter, she’s the whitest disco singer imaginable. Pining for physical love, she comes off like an uptight therapy patient trying to talk about her sex life: The sigh she emits at the end of ”Remember When Lovin’ Took All Night” may be the most chaste moan ever recorded. She does an able reading of Paul Simon’s ”Still Crazy After All These Years” (changing ”crapped out” to ”crashed out” in the process). But throughout the album, she seems like the proverbial little girl in the big city — literally, since the album was recorded in New York, away from her home in L.A.’s Downey suburb.
Like too many of the reissues and compilations currently dousing the market, Karen Carpenter is something only diehards will want to own. It’s also annoyingly typical of the revisionist thinking rampant in the CD era: an album so weak it was canned, back in all its remastered digital splendor! Yet within its slight, dated grooves, you can hear a woman coping with a crippling lack of confidence and an uneasiness with her own body, and her failure to overcome both obstacles almost seems to foretell her death. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t been released for 16 years: For an album meant to be an artistic and career picker-upper, Karen Carpenter is a long way from the top of the world. C+