|Released||October 13, 1978|
AllMusic Review by Bruce Eder
The Carpenters were just about the last adult pop outfit of their era with anything resembling rock credibility (they did have a little of the latter in the early days, and weren't a kid act like the Osmonds) who could have pulled off a straight Christmas album. And they did it in superb style here, illuminated throughout by the delightful, complex, often playful arrangements, courtesy of Peter Knight, Richard Carpenter, and Billy May. Actually, for a change on a Carpenters album, Richard is the dominant personality on display across this record, as both co-arranger and producer, as well as the mastermind behind the project; Karen Carpenter's voice is also prominent, to be sure, most notably on "Merry Christmas, Darling" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and she threw herself into this next-to-last completed project (and their final release before a two-year hiatus), but it's Richard who comes to the fore everywhere here, in ways that are impossible to ignore. And the results are mightily impressive, as the mood never slackens in what amounts to a wall-to-wall celebration of the Christmas holiday. After a suitably festive introductory section, Karen Carpenter's solo voice comes up on the "Christmas Waltz" and the proceedings really take off, carrying us into the most engaging rendition of Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" that has come down in many a year, and it only gets better from there, through a brace of holiday staples that end up sounding fresh in her voice and his arrangements. There's not a slack moment on this album, which is also, curiously, one of the few Carpenters' albums that managed to sound good in every CD edition so far released on it (most of the others needed to be upgraded).
"Karen and I had always been fond of Christmas music and in interviews, as early as 1971, were stating that we would soon be working on one. In hindsight, of course, we can see that it wasn’t about to happen. With the schedule that presented itself following the success of “Close To You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun”, we were fortunate to complete a regular album each year. (As previously mentioned, in 1974, even that did not happen.)
On December 8, 1976, ABC aired our first television special: “The Carpenters’ Very First Television Special”, which placed No.6 in the Nielson Ratings for that week. This led to our being offered more specials, the second of which was “The Carpenters at Christmas”, airing December 9, 1977. It was while selecting and recording music for this special that Karen and I decided the time had come to finally record a Christmas album. To a degree, our project was patterned after a favorite of ours: Spike Jones’s 1956 “Xmas Spectacular”, in that it features more than the average album's number of songs, both sacred and secular, along with some top-notch choral singing. Selecting Christmas music is, indeed, dealing with an embarrassment of riches and I ultimately chose, and we recorded, more than enough for even “Christmas Portrait”, which stretched the limit of how much music could fit on a LP.
What was saddening to me then, and even more so now, is that I was at my nadir dealing with the sleeping pill problem. If I were at my best, I could have and would have contributed a lot more in both creativity and spirit to “Hush”, “Passage”, and the first four television specials. By the time Karen and I began recording on the Christmas album, I was not interested in more than production work, and an occasional lead and some minor piano work. Arranging (something I truly enjoy doing, especially with Christmas songs) was turned over, by me, to veterans Peter Knight and Billy May. With Karen’s marvelous leads, combined with an oversize studio orchestra and chorus, terrific arrangements and timeless music, “Christmas Portrait” was, and is, an almost incomparable Christmas album. It was a hit in 1978 and every year succeeding; I receive compliments on it every holiday season. What I should have realized then, although I don’t know if A&M would have gone for it, is that “Christmas Portrait” is Karen’s album, and should have been titled accordingly, not Carpenters. (I did oversee the mixes, of course, but that falls under production.)
Many a listener will notice that this album is not as originally released. Ave Maria was arranged from the start for chorus, as well as orchestra. With so much music, not to mention people, around the studio while the album was being made, the choral parts were misplaced, only to be discovered after the album was “in the can”. The multi-track was retrieved, and the chorus recorded, in 1984, during the “An Old Fashioned Christmas” sessions. To all of us involved, it was a great addition. The song was later remixed (and an editing error in the lead vocal fixed) in 1990. Some others were remixed at the same time for inclusion in “From The Top”, and ultimately all except Merry Christmas Darling, were remixed for the “Carpenters Christmas Collection” two CD set for Japan".
In the '70s, there was a smoothness to the music. It was cool and mellow and as sensitive as a bear skin rug and a glass of Burgundy. And nothing epitomized that time quite like the voice of Karen Carpenter.
The sadly anorexic, unfortunate Carpenter sibling had one of the sweetest voices of all time and, for the Carpenters, there was no time like the 1970s; and no album quite like Christmas Portrait.
"Merry Christmas, Darling" was a bona fide hit, which was hard to come by after 1950 when it came to Christmas music. The combination of the gentle light rock soulfulness and Karen's soft alto made for a perfect combo on this '70s holiday record.
When Rocks Off was young, we remember Christmas Portrait in the same pile with Andy Williams, Bing Crosby and Perry Como, all required Christmas albums for the post-hippie household.
Besides "Merry Christmas, Darling," the Carpenters turned in a stirring rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Like their original composition, Karen's vocals led the way.
It's one of those records that is easily appreciated even if you really hate soft rock. It is, in short, a Christmas Classic.