The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Friday, November 01, 2002

Richard Carpenter, at his peak, was one of the few musicians to understand properly, and develop upon, the innovations of Brian Wilson. The fact that he achieved this within what was essentially MOR (though I prefer to think of it as avant-MOR; some of the Carpenters' things are decidedly uneasy listening) has of course always been held against him, even though, in his sister, singer and drummer Karen Carpenter, he had the perfect instrument through which his concept could be distilled.

The really early Carpenters work (1966-70) will be a complete revelation to you if you're unfamiliar with it. Here you will find elements taken from Pet Sounds and Smile - not to mention, very obliquely, elements from the Mothers of Invention - and taken in new, if un-rock-like, directions. Songs like "The Parting Of Our Ways" (1966) and "All I Can Do" (1968) are phantasms of pop; godlike chord changes, divine harmonies which overlayer each other as though they were the Tenth Dimension, never mind the Fifth. If "Don't Be Afraid" had been a Rotary Connection recording, or an Axelrod recording, Gilles Peterson would be wetting himself silly over it - it's that good.

Gradually, we hear how Karen's voice gradually settles down from its immediate Mama Cass-type timbre (I will not go into the multiple attendant ironies of that comparison) into a more comfortable and fuller contralto range. The arrangements become less trebly, more expansive. Songs like "All Of My Life" have a sophistication in their arrangements and production which belies the recording date of 1969. Unexpected "protest" songs like "Your Wonderful Parade" (1967) and "Mr Guder" (1970) wander off into all kinds of obscure musical territory, with lyrics (courtesy of John Bettis) which could have come straight off We're Only In It For The Money. "Eve" (1968) is a shattering deconstruction of a lonely and unfulfilled life gradually winding its way down to termination, comparable with anything off Walker's contemporaneous Scott 3 (especially "Rosemary"). And their first hit single, a version of the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride" decelerated to a funereal tempo, turns Lennon's aggrieved doubts into a plaintive acceptance of solitary desperation. The production here is almost 3D in its scope. Still 1969, don't forget.

"Close To You" - the response song to "This Guy's In Love" which Bacharach and David surely always intended it to be (see the sneaky reference to the former in the trumpet solo). Here, Karen is near-apostolic in her compassion and offers selfless love to the Other. It is a divine pop record because it knows how to open up its internal spaces and stand in awe before them, rather than filling them with clutter. The song, close to fadeout, reduces to a single ticking beat (the heart) before the choir (as you knew it would) sweeps hack in again. The harmonic density here is almost Ligeti-like in its intensity and surely must have been an influence on 10cc's "I'm Not In Love."

Was any female singer ever as compassionate as Karen Carpenter? Herb Alpert once remarked that listening to Karen sing was "almost like she had her head in your lap"; it was that close and personal. Certainly no one brought more out of Leon Russell's songs than the Carpenters did; the holy trilogy of "Superstar" (idolation turning to unconditional love, irrespective of whether the Other actually deserves it), "A Song For You" (only Sylvester's scandalously unfeted reading of this song compares in intensity) and the quiet desperation and buried loathing of "This Masquerade."

Yes, desperation. If Karen could be compassionate, she could also be vulnerable and doubting in what she communicated to the listener. "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "Hurting Each Other," obviously; less superficially evident is the Carpenters' gradual trend towards bleaker songs. For every jaunty, benificent singalong like "Top Of The World" there are half-a-dozen things like "I Won't Last A Day Without You," ostensibly a love song but really despairing at dependency. "Goodbye To Love" most obviously; though even here Karen doesn't entirely close the door - she refuses not to countenance some kind of a future, so Tony Peluso's guitar solo (which like Milt Bernhardt's trombone orgasm on Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin" expresses the singer's real desires which the singer is too circumscribed (self or otherwise) to articulate) represents an optimism, represents an opening of the curtain.

The saddest and most disturbing song in the whole Carpenters canon is, for me, "Yesterday Once More" from 1973 - significantly, their biggest-selling single in the UK - which has to be heard in its original context of side two of their Now And Then album. Supposedly just a nice little ballad reminiscing about the good old days, and how nice it was to see the kids getting into the old songs again (with the unasked question: is that because there are no new ones? or that there are but I'm too old to understand?), this actually scrapes a much more painful nerve. 1973, remember - the OPEC crisis, the Yom Kippur war, Watergate, the Vietnam war staggering drunkenly to a close, economic markets in freefall - was nearly another 1962, a time when it seemed that everything was going to be destroyed, maybe even the world. Everything "we" knew, that is - the "we" being the middle-market baby boomers who gave up on the Beatles between Rubber Soul and Abbey Road, who just wanted easy parameters to make themselves identifiable. A prayer for the potentially dying, that's what "Yesterday Once More" was - an extremely political song when you think about it. "Every sha-la-la-la..." as if they are desperately clutching at signifiers like a lifebelt. This all still means something, DOESN'T IT? TELL ME IT DOES!



"When it comes to the part where he's breaking her heart, IT CAN EVEN MAKE ME CRY - JUST LIKE BEFORE." Yes but it's a different intensity of crying now, isn't it? You're crying for something else.

And then on the album it segues into a whole side of songs - "Fun Fun Fun," "Our Day Will Come," "One Fine Day" (remember the placid reading of "We Shall Overcome" which follows the tumult of "Circus '68-'69" on Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, itself an attempt to portray the '68 Democratic Convention riots), flashing past like a suicide whose life flashes past their eyes as they descend towards the pavement to find the concrete beach beneath - but at the end, it's back to the song, Karen's voice now sepulchral and sinister against a static piano chord - "when I was young, I listened to the radio"

(Orson Welles' War of the Worlds. "Anybody there?" "The charred body of Carl Phillips..." Unglamorous rebuild)

They couldn't go anywhere after that. Most of their songs from 1974 onwards were off-the-peg MOR cuts, written by hacks. Karen's voice retained the compassion and vulnerability but the context was lost. By the time of the nice-try-but-no-thanks "Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft" everybody sounds alien(ated).

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