About a year ago, one of my music buddies and music making co-conspiritors (ie. we play in bands and write songs together) who is particularly fond of "sunshine pop" told me a strange story about a recording he was seeking. Friends often come to me with requests but this one seemed odd as it involved one of the biggest selling pop acts of all time. He explained that he was having trouble finding a compilation in the digital world of the original single mixes of hits by The Carpenters. Most of the collections apparently feature remixed and updated versions of the hits, not re-recordings but different approaches to the mixdown that read unfamiliar to some people who remember a certain sound they heard on the radio back in the day.
Now, whether you like the Carpenters or not is not really relevant here, but you should keep reading because this story gets kind of interesting. And, perhaps, you just might be intrigued enough to actually go back listen (as I did) more closely to what Richard and Karen Carpenter accomplished during their run up the charts -- a lush blend of pop music that arguably picked up and carried the mantle of rich harmonies (alongside other confections like The 5th Dimension, The Partridge Family, The Cowsills, and even The Archies - really!) after The Beach Boys and Crosby Stills & Nash became FM radio staples and until later groups like Abba took hold of the torch.
The appeal of The Carpenters' music is apparent from a 20/20 hindsight historical perspective -- something I could not fathom as a little kid in the midst of it all. The Carpenters hit it big just as the whole Hippie / Free Love movement imploded. Icons like Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison were dead as were MLK and RFK. Nixon seemed more powerful than ever. A generation transitioned into the 70s with minds blown on drugs and bad news, friends lost to senseless war in Vietnam. The promise that they could "change the world" with music was rescinded. The once unstoppable Beatles even broke up. It had to be a harsh bummer of a reality check the first time people heard John Lennon sing on his 1970 solo album: "And so dear friends, you'll just have to carry on... the dream is over."
Accordingly, The Carpenters were probably a breath of sobering positivity for many, reassuring cotton candy soothing heavily frayed nerves. Stellar melodies, outstanding production and easy-to-digest flavors. They were like an old friend at the bar. Those were the days, indeed.
I grew up hearing the Carpenters plastered all over the radio as a kid so I never felt need to buy their records. Frankly, for the most part it, was decidedly uncool to admit you liked them back then (ah, peer pressure). Its a bit of a shame as little did I know that Carpenters' records featured many members of The Wrecking Crew, the very same musicians who played on recordings by The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, and many many others. Knowing this today, I have dug fairly deep into the Carpenters music while looking into this mystery of the missing single mixes.
Over the year I picked up six (count 'em, 6!) different Carpenters collections, most of which sound fairly similar. The Singles 1969-1973 collection is dramatically revised, with lovely segues and reprises that create a lovely listening experience unique to that album. But, given the segues, its not really the actual singles some fans want.
I found a promising three CD collection out of Europe which was supposed to have original single mixes on it, only to learn after it arrived -- again, reading fan comments online -- that someone had put the kabosh and recalled it, reissuing it with the newer approved mixes.
Mine was the reissue. Dang.
Then I read about the updated Singles 1969-1981 collection, which promised to be non-segued single-type tracks and which also came in an SACD edition with a brand new 5.1 surround sound mix by Mr. Carpenter. This proved ridiculously elusive, with only pricey versions available on places like eBay for upwards of $100 a pop. Really! Go check it now and see what you find. I was astounded.
This past April I found a "bargain" used version of the SACD at Amoeba Records (in LA) for a mere $25 -- it has some minor scuffs on it but is otherwise perfect and plays just fine. Score! Finally I would get to hear the elusive but highly regarded surround mix of The Carpenters' hits. I was not disappointed.
In fact, I like the surround mix so much I have more or less stopped caring about the original single mixes -- with apologies to my friend John who started me on this quest -- because 5.1 surround is clearly the way to listen to this music. The densely layered vocal and lush orchestral arrangements envelope you, like jumping into a huge vat of marshmallows ready to make a huge batch of Smores. It is soft, warm, sweet and oh so tasty.
All of this makes me wonder however WHY this recording is so painfully out of print? Obviously, there are legions of loyal Carpenters fans who would love to hear these mixes on their home theater systems. Why not re-release it on SACD or Blu-ray Disc with a bonus DVD including videos (and the surround mixes as well) for those who prefer to watch while they listen?
You can download the higher (than CD) resolution 48 kHz/24-bit stereo tracks of this collection via HDTracks.com, on sale now for $17.98. I haven't heard them but I would assume they are similar to the high resolution stereo layer on the Singles 1969-1981 SACD.
Whatever the case, until that magical "original singles" collection comes out someday, you should seek out the Singles 1969-1981 collection on CD -- or SACD if you have surround sound playback capabilities -- or HDTracks download. It is probably the best balance of hits and value -- not too long and presenting individual tracks all on one disc for a reasonable price.
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written. www.smotroff.com