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Guilty Pleasures: The Carpenters

July 7, 2010

I was watching the horror movie “1408,” based on a Stephen King story. I was pleasantly surprised to find it better than the reviews had led me to expect. John Cusack stars as a ghost story debunker who finally finds a story he can’t debunk in hotel suite 1408. The wicked spirits that haunt the room don’t want Cusack to survive his stay, let alone get a good night’s sleep. Much of the pleasure in the film is derived from watching Cusack himself enjoy running through his whole vast repertoire of expressions, from initial skepticism to dismay, fright, panic and then total horror in response to his room transformed into Hell by Hollywood wizardry. But the most effective special effect comes early on in the movie from the 60s era radio in the bedroom, which comes on spontaneously from time to time, even after Cusack has unplugged it, playing the Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun.”   It plays as an ironic joke: the earnest, sweet Karen and Richard are singing in proxy for whatever malignant spirits haunt that accursed suite, with each repetition promising more fun from the other side.

I wasn’t laughing. Because Karen herself is singing from beyond the grave.

Ever since she died, that honeyed voice always makes me a little queasy. I hear in every shiver of her famous vibrato evidence of her tortured life, traces of family trauma. I can’t help but sift every phrase like tea leaves for portents of the anorexia that killed her, self-hatred literally eating her alive.

All this never stops me from listening, because the neurosis and suffering I divine in (or project into) her voice can’t drown out its unique pleasure inducing quality. She had pipes of silver and gold, encrusted with rare gems. To describe the feeling I get as she digs into what Richard called the “basement” of her voice, I have to go all the way to France, where the bakeries sell a fat puff pastry called an Eglise. It looks like any old cream puff until you bite into it. A river of dark chocolate pastry cream pours into your mouth and you’re tasting heaven itself. And that’s how Karen’s voice feels on my ears.

I popped the DVD of “1408” out of my computer and went right to Amazon and before my guilt could stop me, I ordered up the Carpenter’s Greatest Hits. That guilt had stopped me from actively seeking out their music since long before her death laid morbid overtones on it. It started in fact from the first moment I heard “We’ve Only Just Begun” in 1970. My guilt came from the fact that I fancied myself as quite the hip musician. My Gods were Garcia, Hendrix and the outrageous Jefferson Airplane, and I their worshiper with my ratty Telecaster and straggly hair growing down to my ass.

From the first strains of “Just Begun,” I knew I was hearing something terribly unhip. Seeing the Carpenters’ picture just confirmed it. They were clean cut, smiling goody-goody smiles that proved they were as straight as they could come. The worst thing they’d ever done probably was sneak an extra cookie with mom’s milk. In all fairness, Richard now claims that this image was thrust on them by a media that was hungry for just such a musical counter to all of the freaks coming out of San Francisco.

I wouldn’t have wanted to be caught dead enjoying them. Fortunately there was always my car radio, where I could safely enjoy the Carpenters – still guilty, but at least not endangering my reputation. But with my girlfriend in the car I had to put on a charade. “Top of the World” would come on, she’d yell, “Shut that off!” and I’d oblige, because to do otherwise would mean sleeping on the couch or worse.

As I approached fifty, an older friend said, “It’s great being past fifty. You no longer have to worry so much about what people think of you.”  I’m well past fifty now, and she was right. I tore the shrink rap off my trove of Carpenter pelf. It starts with “For All We Know.”  An oboe, the perfect instrument to stand in for Karen’s voice, then her first word, “Love,” and yeah, the way she deep kisses that first word I know she’s still got it. The chorus ends, “And love may grow, for all we know,” and then “Love” literally grows, as her brother joins her in one of those Mormon Tabernacle background choruses, which sounds like 7 generations of Carpenters singing together.

I had expected to be blown away by Karen, but not by those oohs and aahs between multitracked brother and sister. They conjure a magic of perfect harmoniousness that must owe to the vocal blending of shared genes.  The only other place you can find it is in the Wilson Brothers.

You could perhaps accuse them of cheating by covering “It’s Going to Take Some Time,” a song from the height of Carole King’s writing career. This song would be hard for the limpest lounge act to ruin. But they do it real justice. Karen knows to acknowledge the subtle but devastating melodic turn in, “After all the tears we’ve cried, how could we make amends,” because on that last word she reaches down into that basement and delivers a hit of yum. What surprised me though was Richard’s arrangement. This is not the hackwork his many detractors would ascribe to him, but a work of brotherly love, setting a perfect bed of their shared voices, luscious strings and the famous LA session band the Wrecking Crew in which Karen can luxuriate. And she does.

“We’ve Only Just Begun,” even when freed from that infernal radio in “1408,” gave me new creeps when I realized that it had been one of the most popular wedding songs starting in the ‘70s, the same period when marriage became so threatened. The song now sounded haunted by all the horrific marriages that must have begun with it and ended so badly.

The Carpenters’ songs don’t break new ground and certainly aren’t going to put Stravinsky out of business. But they supply two essential tools for Karen’s voice. Obvious is their fabulous hooks, as in their masterpiece, “Superstar.”  Less obvious is the expert voice leading. It sets up the sweet spots of the scale so that Karen can easily grab them and work her magic. The verse of “Won’t Last a Day After You,” reminds me of something with a previous generation’s sophistication for melody writing, like something from “My Fair Lady.”  Here again I have to acknowledge Richard’s arrangement skills. Just as he knows oboe is the perfect stand in for his sister’s voice, he knows strings are its natural compliment. He scores them in the right range so they don’t step on her voice. And someone is recording them so they sound like a million bucks (and actually they made that many times over). Richard never stints on doubletracking Karen’s voice, knowing two Karens is even better than one. He heats the arrangement up with a tasteful electric guitar, and by the end of the song the Wrecking Crew is almost rocking.

I think Richard has gotten an unfair rap: people going so far as to blame him for his sister’s demise, for pushing her too hard.  And I’m sure he was a tyrant in the studio. But he suffered the same parents she did. And between his arrangements, good piano playing, and background singing I think he did an equal share to Karen as a Carpenter.

OK, even getting past their unhipness, the Carpenters committed musical sins that might make us listeners guilty. They butchered the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride.” I can’t bear the later songs because they are increasingly lifeless, as though Karen was already dying. And their genius is mostly one of sound rather than the deep purpose of music, the expression of emotion.

All Karen’s avowals of love, admissions of nostalgia, ruing of loss, has the smell of sentimentality, which is to say, of lying. All the monster oohs and aahs and the strings, and even Karen’s voice itself feel like denial of what’s really inside that troubled woman: a loneliness that was never far from plunging into despair. That’s why “Rainy Days and Mondays” is my favorite. Yeah, that harmonica opening is pure sap, and has since inspired many a hack arranger to commit musical crimes. But here I think I’m seeing the real Karen, a little girl alone, staring out the window at the rain. She’s grown up, but she’s still that little girl, and will always be. And will always be alone.

But be my guest: buy some Carpenters, and enjoy without guilt. If you still need to come to confession, come here to Father Luminous, and I’ll give you ten “Wind Cried Mary’s.”


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From → 60's Music, Pop Music

16 Comments
  1. Well, well – this is all very strange. About 2 years ago, Charlie over at Bloggerhythms set the ball rolling for bloggers to do a ‘Guilty Pleasures’ list or post. We both subsequently posted about the Carpenters at the same time! Here was my take:

    http://mwarminger.blogspot.com/2008/02/guilty-pleasures-pt1.html

    What is it about Karen and Richard that makes us scurry for cover when they are around and yet yearn to hear them at the same time? I am still a bit ambivalent over their true worth but would put ‘Superstar’ in my all time list, nevertheless. It’s the fact that most of their output was unbearable that keeps them in the Guilty Pleasures box for me. Will there ever be such a deeply dividing act, I wonder?

    • Martin – I read your take on the Carps as well as Charlie’s. You are right about her lower range (if you look at their Wikipedia article you can see that they were also aware of this.) I’ve tried to explain their curious appeal above, but I think the sick part comes down to her being forced to smile so much and sing so much smiley material. If she’d stuck with stuff like “Superstar” (incidentally, written by Leon Russell) she might have had a very different rep.

  2. Staying ahead of the curve, isnt’ it?

  3. Excellent post — and thanks for your comment over at my blog, Gold Coast Bluenote.

  4. I saw them live twice in 1972 and 1974 because my future wife loved them. I didn’t know then that someday I would actually come to like and respect them. May the rock and roll gods still save my soul!

  5. I just found out that Tony Peluso, The lead guitarist for The Carpenters died last month at age 60. He is most famous for playing the oldies DJ their Now & Then album and the great guitar solo on “Goodbye To Love.” You can see it on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nooeMrCws-A

    • I’m very sorry to hear that. That solo was one of the things that inspired me to mix electric guitar and live strings. And it had such a perfectly crunchy sound, with little high end squeaks on the attacks.

      Someday you will have to tell me all about seeing them live. You’re the only person I know who can make that claim.

  6. You nailed it all the way: Her vocal range, his arrangements, their obvious squareness (publicly at least). They’ve been a guilty pleasure of mine for a long time. Your comment about sound and not emotion being their forte is true as well, although I think the one exception to that is “Goodbye to Love.” Part of that record’s greatness is the guitar solo referenced above. But I also think that the record holds one of the few times – the only time, maybe, on the hits – that Karen Carpenter got inside the lyric and let the lyric inside her. Never fails to get me.

  7. You put it just right. She does get inside the lyric on “Goodbye to Love. Doesn’t hurt that it’s a very fine old-school (as in Broadway) melody. And the chorus of oohs is simply gargantuan.

    I think she also gets inside the lyrics on “Rainy Days” as well as of course “Superstar,” the mere mention of which gives me chills.

  8. What an excellent piece John. Thanks! I had a few LoLs while reading this at a Starbucks. People were looking like: “hey, I want to laugh like that guy!”

    It actually conjured up an entirely different cinematic frame of reference for me. I’m talking about the slapstick comedy Tommy Boy where after much pretending and switching radio stations Chris Farley and David Spade (down on their luck and driving a beat-up junker) launch into a full blown hilarious heartfelt sing along of Superstar that has to be one of the funniest scenes in the movie… of course the humor is in getting in touch with how much we all (strangely enough) find pleasure in this masterpiece of sappy, overindulgent sentimentality…

    • Thank you, David. You’re the second person to mention this Tommy Boy – I’ll have to check it out.

  9. Brent permalink

    I was always a fan of the Carpenters but as the seventies went on they became even less cool then they were at the beginning of the decade. Richard was a prodigious talent who sharpened his craft at Long Beach and Karen was the focal point because of “that” voice. It was dark, deep, melancholic, haunting, unique and soothing. Her lower range has never been matched in my opinion. Their talents together make the act and their music timeless. They didn’t get the respect they deserved in the early years but their music was a staple on the radio that decade. Some of their lesser known tunes showcase their talents. Songs like “A Song For You”, “This Masquerade” and “Ordinairy Fool” are gems but their ultimate tune is Superstar. Next time you watch Tommy Boy, just listen to that voice as Karen starts. It is sublime and weirdly somehow still fits in that very funny movie. They were very talented.

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