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The Carpenters: Smooth Like A Rhapsody

Siblings Richard and Karen Carpenter perfected easy listening, I was mentioning ambient when writing about Bowie’s album “Low” and often Richard producer seemed to be perfecting the old background/foreground question. Listening to their Burt Bacharah/Hal David medley off their eponymous 1971 album is completely at ease with Bacharah’s intricate song construction -a pop Sondheim,and also very capable of making it simple for the listener, even on the two part harmonies it is all of a piece.

“Always Something There To Remind” is a gorgeous heart breaker but by speeding up the song and giving the faint hint of jazz to the arrangements it doesn’t sting..Singers emote, they act out, the reach and hold, they are actors but Karen Carpenter doesn’t emote on the medley, when a note needs to reached she remains calm and back up singers harmonize.

This is what Richard learnt: how to construct music that didn’t stick out; a sort of landscape of loveliness and muted emotions and while other people did this nobody did it better than the Carpenters. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, raised in LA, they share a sort of polite laid backness. Karen was an alto-soprano and both her and her brother used their skills purely at the service of AM Radio.

Here is a list of their biggest singles over a two year period:

Ticket to Ride – 1969
Close To You – 1969
We’ve Only Just Begun – 1970
For All We Know – 1971
Rainy Days And Sundays – 1971
Superstar – 1971

Every song on this list is a radio staple, a staple of your life,you can’t get away from the Carpenters achievement. A song like Leon Russel’s paean for a groupie almost demands a demented vocal but Karen provides it with a quiet ache, “Ticket To Ride” an ultimate Beatle song with Lennon leading (and we know what that means). On the original Lennon is deranged with grief. The Carpenters start with a long piano motif and through in strings and a bass drums, even a slide guitar, but the song is about Karen’s bridging moan near the end (2 minutes 54 secs in after “…going away”). It is the tiniest touch but in the world of ambience it is ALL ABOUT the softest of touch.

Look at it this way: listen to Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden” -a Bacharah/David song. A competent cover from a broadway musical. It’s a good piece of product but it doesn’t have the touch of artistry Richard brought to the Carpenters. It doesn’t drag you in and keep you out at the same time. In order to create this sort of high grade, highly arranged pop on such a high level you must be a borderline genius and that’s exactly what he was. Listen to their 1974 “There’s A Kind Of Hush”. The Herman Hermit’s was a good natured Peter Noone charmer, Karen carpenter’s vocal has a sort of mature pleasantness and it includes a sax solo and then a guitar and sax fade. The version is insidious the way Musak is insidious but with a difference. Musak’s sole reason for being was to mask the quiet: it demanded you not respond but Richard wanted it both ways. He wanted you to give into the music but only if you wanted to. If you let a song take you over it will.

The Carpenters ended when Karen carpenter died in 1983. But Richard and Karen created a warm, clever pop music that is as ubiqutious today as it was forty years ago.

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