Enjoying the Carpenters remains a controversial stance in some circles and the new two-disc collection, marking the 40th anniversary of this brother-sister duo’s recording career, produces evidence in their defense and for the prosecution. Some of the tracks are total dreck, barely distinguished in their saccharine cheer from their contemporaries, the Donnie and Marie Osmond. And yet, at their best, they were masterful in the craft of pop music, multitracking themselves into a harmonic choir, merging traditional and electric instruments into moody orchestrations and incorporating splashes of jazz for nice effect.
Richard Carpenter, the studio wiz, was the musical progeny of Les Paul with an omnivore’s ear for sound and a love for the technology of the recording studio. But Karen, as the singer, was always the focal point. She couldn’t be called soulful but her pitch-perfect voice sounded committed to the words she sang and the emotions they stood for, especially in songs of loneliness and alienation (“Superstar,” “Rainy Days and Mondays”). On “Masquerade,” she displayed potential as a jazz singer, a direction she might have pursued if death hadn’t intervened.