Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"A Song for You," by The Carpenters

Being a Carpenters fan in high school in 1985 was a lonely road. On the positive side, it felt cool, somehow...punk even, to be into this virtually unknown, very un-cool brother / sister act from over a decade before: Karen and Richard Carpenter. Nobody, and I mean nobody else in my school (maybe a few teachers...) knew about Carpenters. Conversely, it was impossible to really be a fan, because there was nobody who understood how very good they consistently were. Consistently good, at least, until 1974, when they stopped eating, lost their musical focus, and started chasing after pop culture trends du jour. In the late 1970’s, this meant silly TV specials with "guest stars," like Suzanne Somers, Captain & Tennille chasing, and even Star Wars “outer space” experiments – ridiculous. Gone were the brother and sister duo that made stunningly beautiful music at a time when the country most needed it (e.g., Vietnam, Kent State shooting, Altamont, etc.). Besides the Christmas album in 1978, Carpenters last grasp at relevance came with their 1975 album, Horizon. But critics never held Carpenters in high esteem, even when they were very good. In fact, in the seventies it was practically a requirement for rock journalists to publicly berate their music.

Time changes perspective, however, and Carpenters have received significant critical reassessment over the past decade. And the reason, put simply, is the music. In a 2008 Rolling Stone magazine list of “Greatest 100 Singers of All Time,” Elton John called Karen Carpenter "one of the greatest voices of our lifetime," and Madonna has said she is "completely influenced by her harmonic sensibility," whatever that means. The Rolling Stone entry continued, “Impossibly lush and almost shockingly intimate, Carpenter's performances were a new kind of torch singing, built on understatement and tiny details of inflection that made even the sappiest songs sound like she was staring directly into your eyes.” Carpenters’ influence extends to many, including Sonic Youth, The Cranberries, Belle & Sebastian, Sheryl Crow, French electronica maestros, AIR, and, yes, even Daft Punk, to name a few.

And between 1969 and 1973, the Carpenters released an album a year with virtually no missteps. Nestled in the middle of this creative peak was A Song For You in 1972. That album alone contained six of the duo’s 25 hit singles (e.g., “Top Of The World,” “Hurting Each Other,” It’s Going To Take Some Time,” etc.), including the Oscar-nominated, "Bless The Beasts And The Children," but the singles were only half the fun. A Song For You also holds some of the best musical moments the duo ever created. Specifically, the album kicks off on a high point with the oft-covered Leon Russell title track. Originally intended as a concept album of sorts, the Russell song is reprised to bookend the album, thats lyric, in hindsight, is simply heartbreaking. Another standout track, “Road Ode,” is a stark mediation on celebrity and life on the road (written on tour a year earlier by Carpenters band members after a concert at Southern Illinois University). The song hinted at the siblings’ disappointing personal lives and foreshadowed the tragedy ahead. The solitary throwaway track was the one lead vocal by Richard, “Piano Picker,” a cheerful ditty about being nerdy and learning to play the piano; it’s not terrible, just unnecessary.

But the crowning moment of this record for me is the single, “I Won’t Last A Day Without You.” In just under four minutes, it delivers the quintessential elements of a classic Carpenters record. Opening on a somber note, with a solitary piano and Karen’s milk chocolate voice, at once wistful and joyful, the song ends with the group’s trademark multi-layered vocal harmonies. So great the song, in fact, that it rose all the way to number 11 on the pop charts a full two years after the album’s release and after three subsequent single releases from the next album the following year (Now and Then). The album, and Carpenters, seemed unstoppable that year, and the American public just kept returning to this essential album for more. Some of us still do.


  1. How foggy memory can be- I certainly knew who the Carpenters were in Mrs. Blake's art room, I just chose to give you a hard time for liking something so...clean, I guess. My favorite Carpenters' song is "On Top of the World;" I remember being about 3 or 4 years old, sitting in the back yard (desert, really) of our house in Brownsville, TX, picking up grasshoppers and snging that song. Its one of my earliest and fondest memories. I'll have to find this LP at my local record store (yes, really)and let you know what I think.

  2. Hmmm, I don't remember getting the memo in high school that you liked the Carpenters. I can't say they were one of my favorite groups at the time -- they were never top sellers at June Melody in downtown K-town -- but I remember my sisters playing their songs when I was litte. As screwed up at that family was, they made great music. But isn't that the case with so many great groups of that era? An underbelly of ugliness and pain. The Mamas and the Papas, Fleetwood Mac, Jefferson Airplane, etc. Nice post.