Karen Anne and Richard Lynn Carpenter. How I love to speak their names.
Even though I’m constantly reminded that it’s not customary for colored boys from the South to dig them, I count the Carpenters among the artists who influenced – and continue to influence – my love of music and its history. I always get a side-eye from people when I openly express my adoration for this brother-sister duo, and for the life of me I can’t understand why. Strip away the stigma they carry for their squeaky-clean white bread image and the widely scrutinized tragedy that was Karen’s demise, and what you have is some of the most beautifully crafted pop music ever made. Exquisite multi-layered harmonies, simple, love-laced lyrics and occasional soft-rock touches made the Carpenters musical brew a tasty one, a lighter shade of pop-soul. In their case, the music speaks for itself – and if you can’t hear what it’s saying, perhaps you need to open your ears and your mind.
I remember the first time I heard of the Carpenters quite well. I was 10 and in the fifth grade, and one of the networks was airing “The Karen Carpenter Story,” a two-hour movie telling the fallen songbird’s tale. As I sat with my parents in the den, it wasn’t the scenes depicting the singer in the throes of anorexia that struck me – it was those songs. “Love is Surrender,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Top of the World” and “A Song for You” were just some of the numbers featured in the film, and they immediately piqued my interest. Even at such a young age, I felt what that girl was saying in those songs. If nothing else, I wanted to feel what she was saying. The way she sang of love, loss and the rollercoaster of emotions that come along with them was undeniably accurate, and without question an expression of what she was dealing with in her own existence. I knew there had to be more to this act’s story than what I was seeing on the television, and in a few short years I’d find out what that was.
By 1995 I was a few years into my vinyl fetish, and it wasn’t long before I turned my attention to the Carpenters. After reading an excellent biography about the duo my interest in them went into overdrive, and I began to snatch up all of the records by them I could find. The first one I purchased was the excellent “A Song for You” (1972), an album that boasts two of my favorite Carpenters singles in “Hurting Each Other” and “Goodbye to Love,” and their outstanding version of the Leon Russell –penned title track. I have to agree with many observers who say that brother Richard’s contributions to the group’s success are often overlooked, as the beauty of his arrangements were as much a part of their success as Karen’s introspective, often dark interpretations. I picked up other albums in rapid succession: LPs like “Close to You” (1970), “The Carpenters” (1971, which features a cool envelope-style sleeve), “Now and Then” (1973) and “A Kind of Hush” (1976) only deepened my appreciation for their melancholy, sophisticated creations. I even put down 40 or 50 bucks for a copy of “Offering,” their 1969 A&M debut that would eventually be reissued as “Ticket to Ride” after their version of the Beatles classic became a mid-charting pop hit in 1970. Still, no other Carpenters album touched me inside like the watershed moment that was 1975’s “Horizon.”
Emotional, cerebral and complex in its simplicity, “Horizon” is perfect from start to finish. From the sun of “Aurora” to the moon of “Eventide,” the songs collated here find the siblings bringing across happiness and sadness with equally potent emotional resonance for the first time. It’s this that gives the album a maturity missing from its predecessors. On “Only Yesterday,” “Happy,” “Love Me for What I Am,” The Eagles’ “Desperado” and Neil Sedaka’s “Solitaire,” all of the elements of the Carpenters sound came together into a portrait that was as solemn as it was serene. And on the Billy May-orchestrated “I Can Dream Can’t I,” Karen proves she could have easily graced the biggest stages in the world during the big band era. To this day, when I listen to this album I give it my undivided attention, much like I did the first few times I played it.
Though I’ve purchased a variety of compilations on the group over the years, the original studio albums are where the true magic lies. Collections like “From the Top” and “Interpretations” are essential, but the music you find has been remixed and remastered to the point where the original luster is a bit lost. For my money, classics like “Superstar” and “Bless the Beasts and the Children” are best heard in the original album edits. (The same goes for the cuts from “Karen Carpenter,” as the alternate versions featured on many compilations are not the ones Karen approved before A&M shelved the LP.) Plus, there’s just something about the way Karen’s voice and Richard’s piano playing leap off of vinyl. It’s just not the same as popping in a CD or turning on an audio file. Some things are best the way they came into existence.
So, people can hate on me and my love of Karen and Richard all they wish. I’m a proud Carpenters fan and make no qualms about it. Too often, we as people get caught up in labels as they apply to our lives and tastes, and music is no exception. I don’t know what’s more offensive: people who say they can’t get into the Carpenters because they are too white or too plain, or fake followers who get into them because of the aura around them where Karen is concerned. Both stances insult me as a fan, because the beauty of the Carpenters canon should not be limited to the boundaries of racial lines or an aged, media-hyped mystique. It’s about the music, plain and simple.
Regardless, I’ll always ride for Karen and Richard. I guess I’m just that kind of fan.
Check out the Carpenters singing “Only Yesterday” below.