Part of the reason I enjoy writing through the middle of the night is that the world is at bay. I mean, I can’t really run any errands, no one is calling me up at 4 AM save for a couple of very close friends and I can concentrate, via exclusion of the day-to-day, on what I want to write about. Also, my mind begins to make connections between things I never realize during the day. Music sounds different. (Ask any songwriter you know…songs sound different at night.) The tiniest thing will inspire me and keep me digging for hours seeking more information or throw the headphones on and zone out to a 35+-year-old LP.
Which is where Richard and Karen Carpenter come into the picture tonight.
My earliest memories of The Carpenters is sitting in the backseat of my mom’s station wagon. Yes, that’s probably your earliest memory of them, too. (Unless, of course, your mom is Lil’ Kim or somebody.) Anyway, for the longest time The Carpenters were basically aural wallpaper for me. They were played on oldies radio, in elevators, at grocery stores, etc. They certainly didn’t mesh with my punk rock/new wave/wanna-be goth teenage years at all. They were old people’s music and, if I’m being totally honest, this analysis is completely from hindsight. For most of my life I never even considered them.
I don’t know exactly when this changed but I’ve come to regard The Carpenters as literal pop genius. I do not mean that in a retro-cool way or a so-bad-it’s-good way. I mean it literally and absolutely. There’s a deepness in The Carpenters that is practically subversive. Similar to the way Richard Thompson is the masters at camouflaging exceeding cruel lyrics beneath a buoyant tune, The Carpenters were masters at hiding a deeply painful loneliness beneath a veneer of 1970’s mellow-out, live-and-let-live-ism. There’s also something about The Carpenters that’s just bizarre. But, truth be told, the 1970’s were pretty bizarre. (Not to mention that The carpenters are the only band I’ve ever heard of to take a song from a commercial and turn it into a hit). A further truth is that The Carpenters didn’t even write a lot of their material. Richard arranged everything, sure, but the core songs themselves were mostly written by others. And that adds a whole new dimension to what I’m talking about. It’s one thing to subconsciously transfer one’s psychological state into a song (dig how often one you’ll hear a songwriter say something like: “Yeah, it took me years to figure out what that song I wrote was really about”) but it’s another thing entirely to consciously choose songs to sing and then have those songs reveal where your mind is at.
And, of course, I may be adding too much baggage to the whole affair. But, I don’t think so. You can hear it in Karen’s voice. Richard’s arrangements are hardly marshmallow-world, 1970’s fluff. They’re full, deep-hearted and thoughtful. And just sample the lyrics they chose to sing:
–Bless the beasts and the children/For in this world they have no voice/They have no choice
(Written by Barry De Vorzon; Perry Botkin, Jr. for the film of the same name)
-Your guitar, it sounds so sweet and clear/But you’re not really here/Its just the radio/Don’t you remember you told me you loved me baby? (“Superstar” written by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett)
-Lookin’ back on how it was/In years gone by/And the good times that I had/Makes today seem rather sad/So much has changed/It was songs of love that/I would sing to then/And I’d memorize each word/Those old melodies/Still sound so good to me/As they melt the years away (“Yesterday Once More”; Actually written by Richard.)
Without sounding too reticent about it, this could all be made up in my head. But it’s my interpretation and I’m sticking to it.
Which, of course, leads me to David Bowie who remarked in 2006 about Michigan band His Name Is Alive “[it has] an early 70s singer/songwriter vibe plus it comes on like Karen Carpenter.” That remark was in reference to the bands album that year Detrola. Bowie really wasn’t off the mark, either. Thing is, though, that His Name Is Alive seamlessly blends rustic folk music, ethereal mood music and pop. They make albums that are designed to be listened to the whole way through which is exactly how I like them. I used to be fascinated by every act that was on 4-AD (which is where His Name Is Alive resided until 2002) and that’s how I first heard the band years ago. Now recording for their own Silver Mountain label (and benefiting from the distribution heft of Sony/BMG) the band has just released its newest album Xmmer.
I dare you to download this track and tell me that Bowie was wrong. I dare you.
PS: As an extra sweet bonus I urge you to head to the band’s MySpace page and listen to their haunting version of “This World Is Not My Home.”