The Voice of Christmas: Karen CarpenterPosted: December 18, 2010
Karen Carpenter was the Great American Songbook singer who wasn’t. On most Carpenters albums, her material, with some exceptions – I Can Dream, Can’t I?; When I Fall in Love; Little Girl Blue – while superior, was of the 1970s and not the Golden Age. There is, however, an album containing many examples of Karen Carpenter assaying the Great American Songbook; it is the Christmas LP the Carpenters released on A&M in 1978, Christmas Portrait.
That record, along with the follow-up An Old Fashioned Christmas issued a year after Karen Carpenter’s 1983 death, are contained on the 2-CD set Christmas Collection. They prove her death was more than privately tragic. She had the talent, the affinity for the material, and the wide contemporary appeal to have kept the Great American Songbook flame burning into our present time and beyond. But we do have this.
Richard Carpenter here surrounds his sister with orchestral and choral-group arrangements comparable to those one might hear in the glory days of MGM musicals, when Conrad Salinger, Hugh Martin and Kay Thompson worked in that studio’s music department. The material demonstrates how Christmas brought out the best in our songwriters. Fourteen songs on this set are Great American Songbook entries, several of them uncommon (e.g. The First Snowfall, by Sonny Burke and Paul Francis Webster, Sleep Well Little Children, by Leon Klatzkin and Alan Bergman, and It’s Christmas Time by Victor Young and Al Stillman). Various instrumental medleys feature Richard at the piano. As for the vocals, the spotlight is Karen’s. With her dark, melancholy alto, the way she subtly scoops up to her notes, the texture in her voice as it ever-so-softly cracks, and her empathic understanding of lyrics, she fashions a style that feels less like a style than the sound of a human heart breaking.
Take I’ll Be Home for Christmas. The song is a story with a killer twist of a last line, one that reveals the singer’s promises of returning home for Christmas are lies, mere fantasy – that the only way the singer is going anywhere, alas, is in her dreams. The pain in that line is nowhere to be found in most renditions. When Karen sings “if only in my dreams,” the pain is more than palpable, it’s exquisite.
If it’s a truism that only one who knows despair can know joy, Karen proves it on the happier material. You can feel the winter air on her Sleigh Ride, you can breathe in the roasting chestnuts in her Christmas Song. She takes songs you thought you never needed to hear again and makes you hear the greatness in them.
An example of the care lavished on this work is that Carpenter sings the little known verses to the songs. Let me spit it out: This is the best Christmas album ever made. For those who have it, it wouldn’t be Christmas without it.
By the way, the album owes a debt to an earlier one, by Spike Jones. It was called Xmas Spectacular, and came out on Verve in 1956. It’s an album in which Jones strayed from his comedic style to play the material (mostly) straight, and it had a large influence on Richard and Karen Carpenter. In the CD reissue of the Jones album (titled Let’s Sing a Song of Christmas), Richard Carpenter had this to say in the liner notes:
In December 1956, my father I visited The Music Corner, one of several record shops in my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut. To my delight he purchased Spike Jones’s newly released Verve LP Xmas Spectacular. Upon my first hearing, the realization came to us that the album was ‘straight,’ with only a modicum of glugs and whistles employed.
…The album was played innumerable times every Christmas in our home and had quite an impact on Karen and me. When we recorded our Christmas Portrait album (1978) I patterned it after the Jones LP, not only in the use of certain medleys, but also including some of the melodic but lesser known titles Spike had used, such as ‘It’s Christmas Time’ and ‘The First Snowfall.’ Xmas Spectacular is a timeless album; our children faithfully play it every Christmas season. I am delighted to see it released yet again and honored to have been asked to write these notes.
It may be a little late for you to pick up these albums in time for Christmas, but if you can, do. And if you can’t, pick them up for next Christmas.