Pearl: Act of Contrition
January 16, 1978
One of my favorite albums of 1975 was Estate of Mind by Evie Sands, but what was there to say? The cover suggested a sort of Carole King, which she wasn't. The songs revealed no particular identity or message and no special stylistic innovations. Just a good pop record.
A good pop record that wasn't popular. I never saw the thing for sale and only heard one cut played once on the radio. No one except me knew about it and I got it free from Capitol. Evie never toured, far as I know, so there wasn't any audience to analyze. And it wasn't eccentric enough to try and turn into a cult item.
So I never wrote about her. Although I continued to listen, stare at Evie's picture, and wonder. Would she tour someday? Had she released a follow-up I would never know about on a different label that didn't send me freebies? And I started feeling guilty. If I still liked and played the record so much, why couldn't I think of anything to say?
Time went by, freebie lists waxed and waned, and I don't know what happened to her. I think, from what I've read, she's a behind-the-scenes music-biz regular, maybe a songwriter. I'm not sure.
Then I got a record in the mail last year from London Records. It was called Pearl and it featured another unknown white woman singer who sounds pop. And when I put Pearl on the phonograph with Estate of Mind I liked it almost as much. And remembered how bad I felt about never having anything to say about Evie Sands. So here's what I've come up with:
Pearl is two sisters, Leslie Pearl writes, produces, and arranges most of the songs; Debbie Pearl sings lead vocals. But so what? I haven't seen Pearl for sale anywhere or heard it on the radio. That they're a sister act would only matter if they were famous and some interviewer were fishing for an angle. But the songs aren't about sisters or collaborations. And Pearl isn't famous.
Both records show the influence of black pop music while sounding white; neither shows the influence of country, folk, or jazz. Both are more interested in clever lyrics than profound or confessional ones. Both include a lot of songs about sex and love, but the touch is never heavy. Neither is mellow. And both remind me of how I used to idealize Los Angeles, when I thought of it as the true capital of the Midwest. Before L.A. was a place sophisticates who'd given up on New York City moved, and before it produced cowboy singers based on French romantic poets. When it was the place that made all-American white pop music that was beautiful and unpretentious.
Evie Sands sounds more like a veteran. Her voice plays more tricks and comes across as more idiosyncratic and interesting than Debbie Pearl's. Also, the production's better: Lambert and Potter produce big singles--even if they didn't here--and they pick out better songs. People ask what record I have on when I play Evie. The hooks work. It should have been a hit.
I'm not so sure that's true of Pearl, but they have a special charm that Evie lacks--naivete. Ranked according to appealing lack of polish (which is not the same as incompetence) Pearl stands somewhere halfway between Evie Sands and Spring (Brian Wilson producing his wife and sister-in-law), another great unknown white female pop album from L.A.
Why aren't these records popular? Are they too wordy and lyrical for disco? Too uncountrified for the crossed-over country stations that have taken over MOR? Too loud and bouncy for the mellow stations? Too clever and mature to be teen idols? Too singles-oriented to attract promotion from companies interested in "artists" with "careers"?
Maybe there's no longer a category for this stuff. The big '70s acts they recall first made it as something else: Anne Murray was considered country and Helen Reddy was a liberated woman. Maybe the lively, professional distance-from-self in these records doesn't suit this introspective decade. Or maybe I just have offbeat tastes. But at least I've drawn some small attention to two of my favorite unknowns. My burden's lifted, my guilt removed. With a calm heart and untroubled mind I can go and pray in peace: for a return to those AM playlists of the '60s. Evie Sands and Debbie and Leslie Pearl, won't you come and join me? Sister Dusty Springfield is waiting.
The Carpenters were one of those groups I thought I shouldn't like but kept thinking sounded good when I heard them on the radio. Being the person I am, I both set up and felt compelled to break strictures against enjoying them, driven to taste the forbidden fruits of middle-class culture.
The posters for their Now and Then album on the subway walls enticed me, with the Matisse-like super-real album cover. Karen and Richard are frozen in a moment in time, driving an air-conditioned sports car down a Southern California suburban street. Nothing is happening but the moment is so perfect, so normal, that it's luminous. Like those opening scenes in a monster movie that are so average you know something weird is about to happen.
And so I rehearsed how and where I would attempt my Carpenters' record purchase. Trying to overcome my worst case of consumer stage fright since I first bought rubbers years ago. What would the man behind the counter say when I walked up with my Carpenters record? Would he yell out something embarrassing to his buddy at the other end of the store?
But A&M Records saved me. They put me on their freebies list just long enough to send me Now and Then in the mail. In a plain brown envelope. I didn't know what it was when I opened it, honest. For all I knew, it could have been something good, like Phil Ochs. Or Herb Alpert. And once it was opened I had to take it home and play it, right?
What a record!
Karen Carpenter has a voice in the great tradition of Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and other white middle-class women. Somehow expressive and full of allusion in its basic mournful/depressed inexpressiveness. Both presenting the surface of middle-class life and suggesting its deepest hidden feelings. Like the cover of Now and Then.
Karen's is the ultimate for me. Both more bland (or smooth) and more resonant than any other. And, woven into Richard's fabulous Beach Boys-Beatles-Bacharach inspired arrangements and productions, musically intelligent and a joy to listen to.
When I went to see them at the Westchester Premier Theatre last Monday I was both excited and apprehensive. I half expected a blinding suburban epiphany. But I also thought, because of their prowess in the studio, that they might be exceptionally lame as a live group.
I shouldn't have worried. For all the Carpenters' overdubbing and studio intelligence, Karen's voice is still a natural marvel. As fantastic as her recordings from the moment she opened her mouth.
And although their live sound could never match the intricacies of their studio work, it was still polished and flawless. Karen, Richard, and the band flubbed less than five notes all night. The essence of "tight."
But their live stage presence was nothing like what I expected. I guess I thought visually and physically they would be as tight and polished as their sound. Or at least some kind of ultimate suburban symbol. Like a singing Tricia Nixon maybe. But both Carpenters are angular and almost artless on stage. Looking normal the way you and I look normal. Just regular folks who are really into their music.
Unfortunately, tight live music runs the risk of not involving the audience, and for this reason I most enjoyed the "sloppier" oldies medley that closed the show. My friend Ray, who likes jazz more than me, was more impressed by Karen's flawless run through a long Bacharach medley. And I'll have to admit she looked most at home singing this stuff.
Their new album is supposed to be out in a month. In the meantime I highly recommend their greatest hits package -- The Singles. Unlike most other compilations of this type it really flows and holds together on its own--aided by some slick additional studio work from Richard. Buying it in person once I already owned Now and Then was almost effortless, too, as it turned out.
Tom Smucker, Village Voice, 1974