Before the first person pipes up and says, “what about that tribute album in the ’90s?,” I’ll take that on first. Yes, A&M Records released the multi-artist collection If I Were A Carpenter in the 1990s and it featured a host of artists who were, at that time, pretty notable.
That album, however, was not fully intended to recast Carpenters as cool.
At one earlier point, during the formation in the late-60s, Carpenters was more of a band but was later best known for the two siblings at its helm: singer and arranger Richard Carpenter and drummer/singer Karen Carpenter. They had many hits in the early 1970s and was the second major moneymaker for the A&M label, outside of its co-founder Herb Alpert with his Tijuana Brass. Even in their day, Carpenters was not cool, nor did they try to be. Part of their success was predicated upon their being the antithesis of it.
The artists that covered the Carpenters songs in the ’90s recognized that, and somewhat revered that rejection of hipness rather than cause them to mount some vain attempt to “redeem” them, and that lack of agenda contributed to that collection being as good as it was. It is funny to look back on the release in hindsight, where none of the participants – past-past or past-present (?) – are particularly influential in the present-present. Considering how many individuals on the set were at that time or earlier part of A&M’s stable, the cynic could easily argue it was more of a celebration of the company than its famous brother-sister act.
Further proof rests with the performers’ Christmas album. Set against a time when gimmicky, of-its-time new releases glutted racks, and in only a few years, disco Christmas, salsa Christmas, and Star Wars Christmas records would make eyes roll across the nation, the Carpenters holiday release was patently traditional, purposefully square, and has withstood time’s trials to rise, specter-like, every holiday season in shopping malls and 24-hour Christmas music radio stations everywhere.
If Carpenters were purposefully unhip, why did they do so well? Why are they remembered so fondly, even as many of their adult-contemporary peers have been lost to the slop of time?
The early-70’s was a mess. We pick and choose who we want to remember from the era, the musicians of real importance like Elton John, James Taylor, some (not all) of the A.M. radio soft rockers, into which Carpenters uneasily slotted. A listen to an average broadcast from back then would be shocking, filled with tons of one-hit-wonders, past their prime rockers trying to revive the ’60s to no effect, and a lingering sense of participants trying to forget the recent past.
That means, trying to forget the ideals of the various revolutions of the era, most of which did not come to fruition. For all the protests, the Vietnam War was still on. Kennedy was dead, both of them, and so were Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Richard Nixon was president. The firebrands felt burnt out. The peace & loveniks saw their actions run against a wall of indifference. The baby boomers, as they called themselves, would later glorify these years, but in that particular moment, one could easily imagine them as a collective body feeling like all they’d done is spin their wheels.
That made the soft-rock, singer/songwriter moment of that era so attractive. It was both a call for help and escapism. Common themes of this movement were “I can’t make it alone,” “please stay with me,” and “I screwed up so badly, and I don’t know if I’ll see daylight on the other side.” Why, Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” alone encompasses all three concepts. (The so-called “grunge” movement of the 1990s mirrored this with raw songs of self-loathing that convicted the reckless hedonism of the 1980s.)
There was still a significant audience out there that listened to the vocal groups of the late-40s and 1950s. For them, the crooners and the vocal trios like The Andrews Sisters weren’t ancient. The 1960s had passed them by, seeing as how the teenyboppers, the jammers, and the groovy set had stolen the spotlight. There was some sympathy given by the folk groups like The Weavers, but often the politics turned this particular audience off from fully gravitating to folk. It didn’t help that, for many years, Red Scare mongers like Sen. Joe McCarthy equated the folkies with communist sympathizers (an insinuation that some of artists didn’t mind all that much).
Here we are, back in 1972, and in Carpenters one finds a strange sense of unification. They are firmly in the soft-rock field, but are rarely trading on self-indulgence, self-pitying, or navel-gazing. They’re brazenly apolitical. They’re dangerously earnest, almost corny, but carry it all off with a severe perfection that points to workmanlike craftsmanship and focus. It was not someone walking onstage with a guitar and a bunch of vignettes about how they were feeling that day.
Richard Carpenter was a master of engineering what I call “razor blade harmonies.” These are vocal harmonies that are so precisely aligned, they almost sound inhuman. They’d be achieved by having himself and Karen harmonize with each other, already a good match thanks to genetics, and then double-, sometimes triple-tracking themselves. It’s an effect that can now be done with digital harmonizers, which always sounds cripplingly fake and jags on the ear. Carpenters, on the other hand, are easy to listen to.
Most of that skill has to be credited to Richard, which sounds unfair to Karen, especially when you think about songs like “Touch Me When We’re Dancing.” She is harmonized with herself. It was that production prowess that brought out what we remember best about Carpenters, being those super-sharp, razor blade harmonies.
You don’t get those without having rock-solid singers, and there’s a reason why people sigh sadly when they think of Karen Carpenter. For all the corn growing in “Top of the World” and “Yesterday Once More,” she was one of the best voices of her generation. She wasn’t flashy or tricky. She found the note, held it, and never wavered. This is a direct link to the singers of the 1940s, and another way to reach out to that audience member that felt shunned by the ’60s. Carpenter was a spiritual descendant of Rosemary Clooney, of Patti Page, and so on, arriving fully-formed in ’70s adult-contemporary regalia.
Even the best Carpenters tracks are not without flashes of kitsch. “Superstar,” for example, stands as one of the group’s best achievements, but is undercut by the trumpet in the chorus. Karen sings, “Don’t you remember, you told me you love me baby?” The trumpet steps into the call-and-response with that “ba-da-bah-bah-bah ba-da” line, which was completely germane for the times, but in retrospect takes the weight off the tune that would have remained if the string section been allowed to command the space. For the ’70s, that trumpet was needed to “keep it from getting too heavy, man,” but the song needed “heavy.” It’s still a fantastic rendition of the tune, but much like fashion, some of the stylistic choices of that age have worn poorly.
The trumpet sounds right at home, however, on the group’s signature hit, “Close To You.” It’s a song that has endured even through its unabashed earnestness and naivete, even as people have forgotten it was later the accompaniment to the infamous “Ben Stiller gets his balls caught in his zipper” joke in a movie. It survives even though audiences ought to be rolling their eyes to the “Waaaah-aaaaah, close to you” outro. The song is transcendent in its desire to be as uncool as it possibly can.
If all the biographies are to be factored in, Karen hated that limelight. She was uncomfortable standing in it, and this contributed to the anorexic condition that ultimately killed her. Everyone’s looking. She had to be perfect. She had to be thin. She would have preferred to be “that chick on the drums” who, from time to time, got some attention for a brief solo, but got to hide behind the band. By the end, even with Richard’s steady hand putting it all together, she was the band, and that scrutiny paralyzed her.
My personal experience with this is thanks to my parents. Mom loved her pop music. She was first-gen: Elvis, Santo & Johnny, Ricky Nelson, The Everly Bros., The Beatles. She took to the 1970s effortlessly. Dad, on the other hand, listened to the Crosbys, Sinatras, Comos, you get the idea. Most of the time, he classified everything from 1964 onward as “a bunch of screamers.” These polar opposites served me well and helped me form a love for both styles, which in turn opened me up to all styles. It made for a lot of uncomfortable long car rides as Dad scanned the radio for one sound and Mom would flip channels to another, rarely achieving anything near common ground.
Rarely, but occasionally. It always seemed to be Carpenters that they could connect with. The genius move was that Dad heard something retro, something that called back to Hit Parade singers, while Mom heard something more contemporary, mostly in form, baked into the song structure. There were never subjects invoked that could be construed as controversial or even particularly topical. Critics dismissed such attributes as being bland or vanilla, but I disagree. An awful lot of work went into getting a specific sound, nearly as much work as a Lennon-McCartney-Martin joint effort or Brian Wilson. The difference is that Carpenters shot for not being cool, targeted that zone where the voice carried all the water, and in order to do that, the distractions had to be minimized.
For me, Carpenters represented radio detente. It was a mutual point of agreement where Mom and Dad could enjoy the ride, possibly sing along, and that was a quality to be cherished.
Nearly 50 years later, Carpenters’ legacy is in a soft, comfortable niche. They are firmly affixed to the era in which they reigned. The musicians that appeared on the Carpenters tribute are now the subjects of tribute albums of their own. Pop music is an altogether different animal, its preoccupation with sex and revenge so much more dominant and forthright, while at the same time, its fascination with self-help and affirmations frequently seek penance for the sex and revenge. There really are no bridge acts that tie the music from 20 to 30 years prior back to the new, and even hearing a guitar in a pop song these days is a novelty.
There is no modern equivalent to Carpenters and I don’t know how I feel about that.