Graded on a Curve:
The Carpenters,
The Singles: 1969-1973

Celebrating Richard Carpenter’s 74th birthday.Ed.

My youth was haunted by the specter of the Carpenters. My younger sister suffered from a form of demonic possession that caused her to play the damnable duo around the clock, and not in the privacy of her room, but on the stereo in the living room, making their easy listening palaver impossible to avoid. I was inundated by the band that President Richard Milhous Nixon called “Young America at its best,” and there were times when I thought if I heard their version of “Please Mr. Postman” again I would go postal, for real.

How the decades change things. I now love the Carpenters, love their squeaky-clean image (which Richard hated), immaculate arrangements, and total lack of soul. Because if there was one thing they lacked, it was soul. The Carpenters made The Captain and Tennille look like Ike and Tina Turner. But who needs soul? Some of my favorite bands are seriously challenged in the soul department. Killdozer has no soul. Cows had no soul. Besides, while my sister was subsisting on an All-Carpenters diet I was doing the same with Elton John, and when it really comes down to it the only difference between the two is that the Carpenters would have never have laid a finger on “The Bitch Is Back.” Otherwise, both bands were MOR all the way.

I’m not sure what led to my religious conversion; was it their bleached version of Leon Russell’s “Superstar?” Or their anodyne take on “Rainy Days and Mondays?” It doesn’t matter. What matters is that at some point in time I had a moment of Satori; sure they were soulless, but so was Kraftwerk, and I’d sooner listen to the Carpenters’ than that gaggle of Krauts on synthesizers any day. Karen’s voice was angelic. Their melodies were magic. And despite their reputation as the easy listening band par excellence they were more hardcore than I ever gave them credit for, as is proved by the fact that Richard (who turned into a Quaalude junkie!) used to make his entrance on stage by motorcycle, while Karen pounded away at the drums. In a way, the Carpenters WERE America’s Kraftwerk; both bands were really machines that produced songs that were perfectly crafted—machine-tooled, as it were.

What set the Carpenters apart from their soft rock competitors were (1) the amazing arrangements of Richard Carpenter and (2) the crystal clear vocals of Karen Carpenter, which were alternately playful and innocent and perfectly suited to Richard’s smooth—one could almost say pureed—orchestral backdrops. Richard also had a knack for picking songs—the duo primarily performed other peoples’ material—that bordered on the uncanny. He had a sixth sense for a lovely melody and a great hook. As a result, in their prime they WERE the middle of the road, and as Richard Nixon proves they even managed to bridge the generation gap, no simple achievement in the dark years of the early to mid-seventies.

As for The Singles: 1969-1973, it has everything you’d ever want in a Carpenters’ compilation, with the exception of “Bless the Beasts and the Children” and the quirky and beloved “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,” which proved that the Carpenters had a weird side, which came to a shock to absolutely everybody. Other compilations include their later, less successful material, and while they include some gems, the songs on The Singles: 1969-1973 are the most beloved by Carpenters fanatics.

Karen Carpenter’s voice is an ethereal thing, which she demonstrates in album opener “We’ve Only Just Begun.” Richard Carpenter’s arrangement is amazing, and culminates in a chorus with great horns, backing vocalists, and a tambourine. Meanwhile Karen’s vocals act on you as a mild opiate, and she even demonstrates a little spunk, only to return to that super smooth pitch that bewitched millions, my sister one of them. “Top of the World” opens on an improbable country note, and then Karen sings it with a carefree spirit; she’s a girl skipping down the road without a worry in the world. This is one perky number, and I used to despise it with every fiber of my being, but as I grow older I often find myself singing it to myself. The orchestration, by Carpenters’ standards, is remarkably restrained—some strings, electric piano, and backing vocalists. Meanwhile Karen enunciates every syllable perfectly; her voice is supernatural, and she knows how to use it.

The Carpenters’ cover of the Fab Four’s “Ticket to Ride” opens like a Randy Newman song, and Richard slows down the tempo to let Karen do her thing. It actually packs a little whumph (by Carpenters’ standards) come the second verse, and if I’m not wild about the supersized vocal contingent on the choruses, Karen sure knows how to bend her notes. In fact, I may be forced to retract my comment about Karen having zero soul, because if she doesn’t quite make the mark, she comes damn close on this one. Meanwhile, the duo’s cover of Leon Russell’s “Superstar” is luscious, with Karen sounding as “sweet and clear” as the guitarist she loves. And the chorus! It’s a thing of beauty. It boasts some great horns, an authentic rock beat, and Karen’s crystalline vocals, and I have no idea what Leon Russell thought of it but I love it.

“Rainy Days and Mondays” is an orchestral marvel, and even includes a nice saxophone interlude. The backing vocals are spot-on, and Karen knows how to work up to a big climax, which is followed immediately by “Goodbye to Love,” where Karen sings, “All I know of love/Is how to live without it/I just don’t know where to find it.” The song’s a bummer, but a delectable one, and it includes—improbably—a tremendous guitar solo along with the usual contingent of backing vocalists and a great finish, with lots of “aaaaahs” joined by that great guitar. Who knew they had that guitar solo in them? I sure didn’t. Just goes to show that Richard’s orchestral palate is larger than anybody ever would have guessed. Give the guy a rock band, and he might have made some honest-to-god freaky music.

“Yesterday Once More” is a paean to the songs of the past, in which Karen sings, “When they get to the part/Where he’s breaking her heart/It can really break your heart,” and I’ll be damned if my heart doesn’t break a little every time I hear it. Meanwhile she celebrates the old melodies, the ones that can “melt the years away.” And I love the chorus, where she sings every “Sha la la la still shines,” because anybody who has ever loved an old song knows exactly where she’s coming from. “It’s Going to Take Some Time” features Karen post-heart-break and in a pensive rather than perky mood, while the strings and piano and even a flute solo give the song its moody ambience.

“Sing” has always been an iffy proposition, a bit too cute and Muppet-like for my tastes. But Karen’s voice is magical and the flute and horn accompaniment are perfect, and things don’t irk me until the child choir enters, singing “La la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la.” “For All We Know” is a near perfect pop song, with Karen singing like an angel and the backing vocals coming in perfectly. As for Richard’s arrangement it’s a revelation, not overblown but with some horns here, some strings there, and I never get tired of this one. “Hurting Each Other” is a bit dark for a Carpenters song; Karen really emotes, especially during the chorus when she’s questioning why, “It should be/We go on hurting each/We go on hurting each other/Making each other cry/Hurting each other/Without ever knowing… why.”

As for album closer “(They Long to Be) Close to You” it’s pure schmaltz, and I love it. It opens with a famous piano riff, and then Karen sings about the perfect guy, someone everyone from the birds to the stars to the angels want to be close to. I can clearly remember being horrified by the lines, “On the day that you were born/The angels got together/And decided to create a dream come true/So they sprinkled moon dust in your hair/And golden starlight in your eyes of blue.” But I’ve come to love singing them, because the melody is irresistible and the lyrics are so over the top I don’t know whether to laugh or admire their sheer chutzpah. And then there’s the nostalgia factor. Beware of the song you hate today, because in 30 years you may just find yourself humming it.

The Carpenters were a great band that appalled hippies and metal heads and hipsters of all stripes, but their songs have stood the test of time and are as lovely as they ever were. Karen Carpenter may not be to everybody’s taste, but her voice was like quicksilver and her brother had an uncanny knack for arranging songs that set her vocals off like diamonds in a very exquisite setting. They were square, no doubt about it. As square as Richard Nixon. But as Neil Young once sang, “Even Richard Nixon has got soul,” and the Carpenters have soul too. It’s just not the kind of soul that will move your feet. It’s more of an anti-soul, designed to make you swoon rather than sway, and say what you will of the Carpenters, no one else has ever made music as pure, and as smooth, as they have. They should play this album in mental institutions to calm the patients. And that’s as good a recommendation as any.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

I dedicate this review to my sister Lynne, Carpenters fan par excellence.

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