The music of the sublime sibling duo is the latest to get an orchestral overhaul
You can blame it all on Elvis. Once his 2015 album If I Can Dream, which paired his previously recorded vocals with new backing from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra became a best seller (selling over a million copies and topping Billboard’s Top Classical Albums chart in the process), other similarly fashioned releases have followed, throwing an orchestra behind the likes of Roy Orbison, Aretha Franklin, and the Beach Boys.
And now, the Carpenters have been given the symphonic treatment, on Carpenters With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Seventeen of the duo’s best known and best loved songs have been arranged into what’s in essence a complete performance, kicking off with an overture (a new piece written by Richard Carpenter), with each song seguing into the next. And unlike the other similarly-themed releases, this one has the direct involvement from one of the artists as well; Richard wrote the new arrangements, conducts the orchestra, and serves as as co-producer.
The Carpenters’ wholesome, white bread image made them terminally unhip in the hard rocking 1970s. Indeed, their record company eagerly promoted them as being the antithesis of the raucous sounds that had emerged from an increasingly loud and “heavy” rock scene, an early press release heralding them as “bringing back the 3 H’s — hope, happiness, harmony — that have been missing in the last musical decade of dissonance, cynicism and despair disguised as ‘relevance.’” President Nixon gave them the establishment stamp of approval by inviting them to the White House to perform, lauding them as “young America as its very best.” That wasn’t something that was going to go down well with folks spinning Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones records — let alone Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On.
The masses didn’t care, of course, and it was a golden era for the duo, who racked up a steady stream of hit after hit after hit, landing sixteen singles in the Top 20 from 1970 to 1975; no mean feat. And those who were able to focus on the music over the image discovered that the Carpenters’ lead singer, Karen, possessed an astonishing voice, one of exceptional warmth and beauty. And their songs (produced by Richard, who also sang and played keyboards) were smooth pop treats: catchy, tuneful, irresistible.
Karen’s subsequent death in 1982 due to complications from anorexia, and Richard’s own admitted struggles with substance abuse have shown that the Carpenters’ perceived image never did match up with reality. This was true even before those details of their lives became public knowledge. Though seen as relentless purveyors of sunny optimism, their songs reveal otherwise: every “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and “Top of the World” is matched by a “Hurting Each Other” and “Goodbye to Love.” The covers of “Ticket to Ride” and “Please Mr. Postman” are about breakups. “Superstar” is about a groupie who’s been left behind (the song was even originally titled “Groupie [Superstar]”). Though she could sound like the perfect picture of contentment, Karen’s rich voice could also be almost unbearably poignant on the Carpenters’ more melancholy songs.
The idea of matching up Karen’s voice and the Carpenters songs with an orchestra is a natural one; had she lived, it’s easy to imagine Karen fronting an orchestra on tour. And on this new release, the songs continue to shine in their new settings. But to these ears, they aren’t improvements over the originals. A number of the original songs already featured string arrangements, so these new incarnations aren’t necessarily that different. In other cases, like “Rainy Days and Mondays,” the additional instrumentation makes the songs sound too “busy.” Similarly, there’s a gentleness in the original “Goodbye to Love” that gets gets buried due to all the activity, with the guitar solo tweaked so that it’s now unpleasantly harsh.
Part of the problem is that your ears have become used to hearing the original versions for over 40 years, meaning that it may be harder to hear the new versions as “better.” But of course, making the music “better” isn’t the point of these kind of releases; it’s to generate sales of previously released material by presenting it in another format, so that it’s not just another “greatest hits” release (as Richard himself says in a press release, “We’re trying to keep the CD alive”). A new way to recycle, in other words.
The press release also describes the new orchestrations “beefier, more decorative.” But did the songs need to be beefed up? I would say no. That doesn’t mean Carpenters With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra isn’t an enjoyable release; it is. And those who aren’t as familiar with the duo’s work may be particularly beguiled. The songs have been successfully updated for a more modern sound, yes. But they don’t surpass the originals.