The Carpenters — Christmas Portrait (1978)
One of the weirdest and most wonderful things about the Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait album is that it brings back to those of us of a certain age fond memories of Christmas moments that never happened. Let me explain. Those of us who had childhoods in the early seventies, when the Carpenters were at their commercial peak, probably count hearing their records on Mom and Dad’s favorite AM music station as some of our best memories of the time, mainly because they remind us of other fond childhood memories. Every December, when we hear tracks from this album on the radio — it’s probably the only time you ever hear any Carpenters cuts on American terrestrial radio anymore — we’re likely to think of those early-seventies Christmas moments and how Christmas Portrait brings it all back. There’s just one thing wrong: Christmas Portrait, the first of two Carpenters Yuletide LPs, was released in 1978. So, a record that reminds us of the days when Richard Nixon was President was actually issued when Jimmy Carter was President.
So what? Karen Carpenter’s contralto voice and Richard Carpenter’s arranging skills hadn’t changed all that much by 1978, even if by then they were no longer the hitmakers they had been earlier in the decade, so Christmas Portrait is still a legitimate soundtrack for our earlier childhood memories. Here, Richard Carpenter offers a cornucopia of stirring strings and sumptuous keyboards, making each song and instrumental as comforting as a Yule log. Karen’s soothing delivery on songs such as “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” is warm and fuzzy, as it should be, and her vocal on tracks such as “Sleigh Ride” can be playful and filled with joy, reminding us that not all of her best moments came from heartache.
In fact, Karen isn’t the only center of attention on this record. Richard puts to rest the idea that he was just the duo’s keyboardist with a splendorous overture of familiar holiday tunes, and he employs a chorus of background singers throughout the record that add fullness and color that the backing harmonies on the duo’s more familiar hits more often than not lacked. But the one original song here — “Merry Christmas Darling,” a song about holiday separation that Richard wrote with Frank Pooler — is a classic Carpenters pop tune that recalls their greatest hits, from the “ahh-ahhh” backing chorus to the silky saxophone solo and the light piano keys.
Actually, “Merry Christmas Darling” had originally been released as a single in 1970, a remixed version being used on Christmas Portrait, so that memory you have of hearing it on Mom’s stereo or in Dad’s apartment (those of us who were in grade school in the early seventies tend to be children of divorce) before the late seventies is probably valid. After a second Carpenters Christmas album — An Old-Fashioned Christmas, from 1984, released a year after Karen’s death — A&M released a CD version of Christmas Portrait that was a composite of both records, jumbling my generation’s collective holiday memories of Karen and Richard even further. But no matter how the Carpenters’ Christmas music is presented, you’ll still remember your happier childhood moments, and you’ll be glad it’s yesterday once more.