Recordings

Karen Carpenter
Karen Carpenter
(A&M)

Both A&M honchos (Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss) thought the solo album Karen Carpenter spent much of 1979 making was a bomb, and wanted it diffused without a public hearing. So did brother Richard Carpenter, but for more personal reasons. The chief architect of the Carpenters' sound, Richard was understandably nervous that its most recognizable component, Karen, with her melancholy voice, was about to strike out on her own. Strike out is what this uneasy listening experience probably would've done had quality control not intervened. Seventeen years and one untimely death have not improved this pitiable artifact one iota, only made it more of a curio. In anyone else's hands, a disco song titled "My Body Keeps Changing My Mind" would have remained merely innocuous. Coming from an anorexic, it's positively chilling.

Somebody should've given producer Phil Ramone a doctor's note saying "Karen should be excused from performing disco because of health reasons." A singer needs to be completely comfortable with his or her body to exude the sensuality needed to pull off the boogie. While Karen's voice could convey maudlin despair without peer, her attempts at sounding seductive on "Still in Love With You" sound like somebody trying to scratch a back itch in a body cast. A still-in-Chicago Peter Cetera gets in some early duet practice here on the woozy "Making Love in the Afternoon."

Carpenter reveals her true colors when she covers "Still Crazy After All These Years" and refuses to sing "crapped out." A girl like that has no business singing "Remember When Loving Took All Night" or delivering Huggy Bear lines like "I don't know what's going down." Karen certainly merited and needed to express herself outside of the Carpenters' formulaic confines. It's tragic that she felt she had to stray so far from type to achieve artistic independence.

--Serene Dominic

Descendents
Everything Sucks
(Epitaph)

Back together one more time, and it's like they never parted: Presenting 15 more songs about coffee highs and love lows, more harmonic hard-core performed by men who started out as boys who couldn't get the girls and got all hot and bothered after a night of burger-eating and porn-watching. It all used to seem so easy--"Wienerschnitzel" was 11 seconds of pent-up genius, "I Like Food" coughed up 15 seconds of greasy-great celebration, and the whole I Don't Want to Grow Up album ranks as their overlooked masterpiece--but now it all seems so obvious. Now that Milo has returned once more (from Madison, Wisconsin, where he's a biochemist) to the fold, now that All is no longer a member of Interscope's roster, here are the Descendents to reclaim the throne from the pretenders and contenders to prove that no matter how old a guy gets, he's still a horny, hungry kid deep down in his bowels.

Or is he? There's something vaguely prosaic about watching Milo Aukerman, Karl Alvarez, Stephen Egerton and Bill Stevenson retrace their footsteps back to the tree house. Hearing Milo sing, "Everything sucks today" over and over seems almost beside the point, even silly, after all this time; listening to him pay homage to his "Coffee Mug" one more time seems kind of redundant. It's as though a second hasn't passed since Milo Goes to College in 1982 and Milo Goes to Epitaph in 1996; there are few of the profound little revelations that made the early recordings seem so genuine and necessary. It's like going to your high school reunion and finding that the jocks still date the cheerleaders and pick on the goofy kids.

The music is still fine enough--catchy hard-core that seems safer than before, fragile melodies encased inside brief, speed-pop homages to all things edible and foxy. Yet after all this time, Milo and his pals are still chasing dreams and girls and hoping for a better place to go every morning--a suburban paradise where the beautiful girls kiss the uncomely boys.

But then comes that one profound moment that makes Everything Sucks so worthwhile, that one flash of insight that evinces tangible proof the band members have gotten older despite their best intentions. "What will it be like when I get old," Milo asks in the magnificent "When I Get Old," running down a list of all the things he used to do as a kid and wondering if they are forever lost to his youth. Will he still be able to ride his bike around town, to kiss his girlfriend "and grab her ass," to act immature--or will he sit around all day and watch TV and talk about the good old days? "I never want to go that way," he insists--screams, really, as only he can. "Never burn out not fade away." In that one moment, Milo and the boys wrestle with encroaching middle age and decide, of course, they are still children playing in the tree house, strapping on their instruments and plugging into the coffee machine one more time. Such is the nature of rock 'n' roll, that it always makes room at the kids' table for a few more grown-ups who forgot to, well, grow up.

--Robert Wilonsky

 
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