Reviewed by Johan Palme on 12th December, 2015
Richard Carpenter and Karen Carpenter of the Carpenters were born in 1946 and 1950 respectively. In the mid-fifties they were no more than 10 and 6 years old. And yet, from the very moment they started making music as a group at the end of the 1960s, the mid-fifties were the period they often returned to in their music. Not necessarily note-for-note, but in spirit, in inspiration. Richard Carpenter had a near-encyclopedic knowledge of old records, half-forgotten styles, fading stars, and somehow, this knowledge translated into music that was entirely unlike that of their seventies contemporaries. It lends a particularly uncanny, hard-to-place quality of timelessness of The Carpenters’ music, blending strands of values from the future optimism of the fifties with the more nihilistic seventies and not really being at home in either.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the Carpenters’ only real Christmas album and one of their last albums altogether, Christmas Portrait. Inspired by Les Paul and even more explicitly by Spike Jones, it’s an album that really revels in old-fashioned hi-fi wizardry. Richard Carpenter – deep in his addiction to Quaaludes that he’d spend the whole next year getting treatment for – handed over arrangement duties to a 1950s lounge novelty band leader and an obscure, hand-picked television composer from England, getting their expertise in massive orchestral arrangments as part of the bargain.
Just as commercial music was trying to emulate disco and utterly failing, becoming cheap and derivative in the process, here’s an album that’s anything but. It’s immesurably generous and rich in many ways: In tradition, reviving almost forgotten carols like “Christ is Born” and linking sections into a fascinating puzzle of half-remembered tunes. In recording, utterly unlike almost all music of the time. And most obviously, in voice. Karen Carpenter’s voice, close-miked, haunting yet triumphant, brings the album to the perfection it strives to reach. Timeless indeed.
The links below go to The Christmas Collection, a double CD of which CD1 is Christmas Portrait.