Some 30 years on, few female vocalists can deliver ache and intimacy with the seeming ease of Karen Carpenter. Add in her tragic death in 1983, and the music of the Carpenters holds an indelible melan

Some 30 years on, few female vocalists can deliver ache and intimacy with the seeming ease of Karen Carpenter. Add in her tragic death in 1983, and the music of the Carpenters holds an indelible melancholy. So there's plenty of wrenching emotion to be had throughout Carpenters: The Essential Collection (1965-1997), a four-hour, 73-cut boxed set that sweeps from the brother/sister duo's pre-A&M signing through its 21 top 40 hits to songs that were issued following Karen's passing. Fans will get a kick out of the pair's earliest works, beginning in 1965, which showcase a developing act in search of its sound, experimenting with folk and jazz-quite a distance from Richard Carpenter's soon-to-be trademark easy-listening arrangements (an all-too-common source of derision from critics who missed the big picture). It's with the second disc, covering 1971-1973, that we see the Carpenters hit their stride with timeless downers like "Rainy Days and Mondays," "Goodbye to Love," "Hurting Each Other," and, perhaps Karen's greatest chiller, "Superstar." The hits continue on disc three, documenting 1974-1978, including the evergreen "I Need to Be in Love" the and bright "There's a Kind of Hush," "Only Yesterday," and "Please Mr. Postman," along with a number of elegant Christmas songs culled from their two holiday sets, and-perhaps the collection's greatest moment-an intoxicating take on "Tryin' to Get the Feeling Again," completed in 1994. Disc four, 1978-1997, is the most uneven of the set, as it shows the duo struggling to adapt its sound as the '80s unfolded and the Carpenters (notably, the top-charting American act of the '70s) became increasingly unfashionable. Rounding things out, entertaining and colorful liner notes from Richard reveal the history behind each song in an informative and candid style-but other than an awkward, canned radio interview, campy overseas beverage jingles, and a live medley with Karen and Ella Fitzgerald, there's not much here that hasn't been heard before.

It would have been fun to include outtakes and alternate arrangements instead of packaging the hits yet again, since most followers likely already have one of the numerous collections previously issued (in particular, the 1991 boxed set, From the Top, which is awfully similar to this one). But Essential does compactly tell the story in total of an act whose achievements and place in history become more appreciable with some distance from its day in the sun. Truly a sentimental journey.