Roger Nichols / Paul Williams

We've Only Just Begun

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This is the kind of release that serious listeners of pop music should want to see more of -- and not just because of the directness and simplicity of the opening track, "After All." Back in 1967, Roger Nichols and Paul Williams were introduced to each other at the offices of A&M Records -- Nichols was a singer/songwriter, arranger, and producer who'd seen some success with his group the Small Circle of Friends, and Williams was an out of work would-be actor and singer with a facility for great lyrics. For the first few years they worked together they placed a few of the songs that the wrote on albums and, occasionally, record B-sides, but starting in 1970 when "Out in the Country" by Three Dog Night and "We've Only Just Begun" by the Carpenters were released, they owned a big chunk of the airwaves. This 12-song collection is comprised of the writing duo's demos from those days of their collaboration, and it's essential listening for both devotees of '70s pop/rock and fans of the Carpenters and Williams' own records. Though they are demos, and are mostly in mono, they're sung, played, and produced well enough that they can just about have passed muster as full-fledged finished recordings at the time, and in the 21st century as newly unearthed artifacts of an earlier era they're downright bracing, even exciting. Karen Carpenter may have sung "We've Only Just Begun" better than anyone else in the world ever could or did in terms of intonation and overall effect, but Williams invests the words on this first-ever recording of the song with a meaning and purpose and immediacy that make one feel as though one is truly hearing it for the first time. On hearing "Let Me Be the One," one discovers precisely how much of Carpenter's interpretation was guided, in tempo and nuance, by Williams' rendition. She had the pipes, but this demo and Williams' singing on it were very much the guide for her and also for Richard Carpenter in how the song should be sung and arranged. And when hearing "When Love Is Near" in this setting, it suddenly takes on the bracing immediacy and depth of a Jimmy Webb song -- and that's praise of the highest order. Nichols and Williams obviously selected their strongest demos for this retrospective release, so it's not fair to conclude that everything they did was up to the standard heard on this CD, but the very fact that a dozen of these self-produced cuts -- with Nichols on piano, guitar, bass, and backing vocals behind Williams' lead -- of this quality can be assembled makes one want very much to hear their other holdings in the A&M vaults.

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