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Karen Carpenter's 'Lost' LP

Pop Beat: Four years before she died, the sweet-voiced singer made a solo album, a musical departure for her. A&M plans to release it in October.

August 31, 1996|JERRY CROWE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Karen Carpenter didn't live long enough to see her only solo album released, and it didn't look as if her fans around the world would live long enough either.

A&M Records has kept "Karen Carpenter," a 12-song collection, locked away for 17 years.

But after a 1994 Carpenters tribute album--featuring versions of the group's hits by such acts as Sheryl Crow, Sonic Youth, Matthew Sweet and the Cranberries--sparked renewed interest for the duo's work, A&M will release the solo package on Oct. 8.

"Interest in the Carpenters has never waned; it has only varied in degree from one time to another," says Diana Baron, a senior vice president at A&M. "Since the release of 'If I Were a Carpenter' two years ago, we've experienced a wave of renewed interest from fans. . . . This record is for them."

Recorded in 1979, four years before Carpenter died at age 32 of heart failure caused by anorexia, the solo album offers a rare glimpse at a looser side of a singer best known for her ultra-sweet romantic ballads and wholesome girl-next-door image.

The collection includes three disco tunes, a reworking of Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years," a duet with Chicago's Peter Cetera and even a country ballad.

"She was one of those amazing vocal talents--and a very interesting girl, a lot deeper than a lot of people gave her credit for," says eight-time Grammy winner Phil Ramone, who produced the record. "She was really at a phase in her life where I think she was facing womanhood and . . . needed to expand her horizons.

"Like anybody who comes out of a group, it was time for her to express herself as a vocalist, and also to show that . . . maturity was setting in. The goody-two-shoes thing, I think, was getting to be a problem for her. Not on a personal level, but career-wise."

The album came about when Richard Carpenter, Karen's older brother and musical partner, announced in 1979 that he wanted to take the year off after a hectic recording and performing pace that established the duo as the most successful U.S. pop group of the '70s.

In the decade after its formation in 1969, the Downey-based sister-brother team had recorded nine albums, all of them arranged and orchestrated by Richard, who also had produced them since 1973. The duo had strung together 16 consecutive Top 20 hits--from the chart-topping "(They Long to Be) Close to You" in 1970 to "There's a Kind of Hush (All Over the World)" in 1976--and starred in four network television specials as well as countless world tours.

Karen, though, couldn't imagine sitting around for a year.

"It was OK for a little bit," she told an interviewer in 1981, "but then I was anxious to go back to work."

She denied rumors that the album was part of a plan to eventually sever ties with her brother.

Herb Alpert, the label co-founder who had signed the Carpenters to A&M, put her together with Ramone, whose work with Billy Joel, Kenny Loggins and Paul Simon had made him one of the hottest and most respected producers in the industry.

"I thought it was strange in a way [to be picked] because the collection of artists I was working with at the time were a little more tough and a little less middle of the road," Ramone says. "But it was her vocal ability that attracted me and made me feel that we could work together."

The producer and singer listened to hundreds of songs before selecting about 20 to record. Among the tunes that made the album were two by Rod Temperton.

"It was fun cutting it and seeing that I could do all that, sing a different type of tune and work with different people," Carpenter said in 1981. "I wasn't sure if I could do it myself."

She and Ramone were happy with the initial results, and A&M added the album to its 1980 release schedule. But when recording dragged on, Richard started getting itchy to return to work. The record was subsequently shelved because Karen had decided that her work with Richard should take precedence and that she didn't want her solo record to interfere with the Carpenters' projects.

"You obviously get disappointed," Ramone says of his reaction at the time. "Timing is important on a record release. I blame myself for some of the songs sounding a bit dated now, but it was recorded at the time of 'Saturday Night Fever' and all those other disco hits. When it didn't come out, I thought, 'Oh, damn. This won't have a long shelf life.' "

Richard Carpenter, who has included alternate versions of six of the record's tracks on Carpenters retrospectives, has endorsed the album's release. And even though the disco-heavy tracks seem stuck in a time warp, Ramone also is pleased to see it finally come out.

"I hope her fans will excuse some of it," Ramone says, "but I don't apologize for any of it. I know how she felt about it, and I know how I feel. I still feel good about it. Some of the songs on there are definitely mature works--and worthy of Karen Carpenter."

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