I obviously could not write the biographical portion of this review of the Carpenters without a deep dive into Karen and Richard’s lives and work. And, of course, the biography is easy… but what is it about the music which makes me think her art is informed by her life?
To that question, I decided to do a quick review of her top 10 songs.
Doing a top 10 was easy/hard – I knew what was #1 pretty much from the start, #2 can be #1 if I’m in a mood, #’s 3-6 can be in almost any order depending upon the day, and 7-10 were put on the list with an eye of showing Karen’s talents off or filling out the history. I also chose, for the most part, songs which were released as singles. Richard and Karen knew where her success lay and they capitalized on this as they were taught to.
Before I begin, let’s review a Richard song. I was rather rough on the man this entire previous piece, so, please understand: he was a great arranger and producer, especially of Karen’s ballads. However, in any other life (and, really, not in this one either), he never would have sniffed the top-10 as a lead singer. A typical outing was his version of Bobby Vee’s The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, a song so desperate for attention it literally ends with a faux radio call-in DJ asking the ‘caller’ who the mystery group was behind this song… and the caller gets it wrong, end of record.
Truly amazing stuff speaking to the psychological state of this man even in 1973.
Anyway, it’s cute, kind of. He gives it a good 1963 sheen to it, and… and I may be wrong on this… it sounds like his voice is double-tracked through the entire song. Which is fine but may also signify someone not confident enough in the sound of their voice to carry the tune. And, to be fair, the radio call-in thing was used by a gimmick on other covers on the same album (Now & Then, 1973)… but it still reeks of ‘can you see me?’ desperation.
Regardless, this is emblematic of his work. He could craft a song, but he could not carry one.
Richard’s genius is shown by the one correct production decision he constantly made: when his sister was singing a ballad, cut the shit and put her front and center. And that’s one of the reasons why you won’t find her more up-tempo stuff here – Richard just couldn’t help himself and overproduced those songs.
I Need to be In Love, (Carpenter, Bettis, Hammond). When asked in 1981 what her favorite song was that she recorded, Karen’s answer was this 1976 release. For a woman who always wanted the white picket fence of middle-class maternity, this song was especially meaningful. “So here I am with pockets full of good intentions, but none of them will comfort me tonight” sings the woman who will starve herself because of this sentiment.
10. This Masquerade, (Leon Russell, 1973). Leon Russell loved Karen’s version of his most famous song, though it was George Benson who pushed it through to the top of the charts. Her rendering of “thoughts of leaving disappear each time I see your eyes” strongly evokes how people can remain trapped in situations it appears easy (from the outside) to extract themselves from.
9. (They) Long to Be) Close to You, (Burt Bacharach, Hal David, 1970). Their first #1 song, this is Karen before she internalized how ‘the money is found in the chamber’. Also, two big production flaws – Karen’s last independent note is sang at 3:00, but (flaw #1) then the song does 1:30 of “whaaaaa, close to you”’s, a section which (flaw #2) itself has a false ending (3:36). It’s a small mistake compounded on a larger one, but this song can’t be overlooked for the simple reason is it put them on the map. (BTW, that’s Hal Blaine on the drums. Never doubt the quality of A&M’s session work of the early 1970s.)
8 I Won’t Last a Day Without You, (Williams, Nichols, 1974). In some ways the best of both worlds: Karen staying deep in the verses, rising up her register to belt out the choruses. Originally recorded in 1972, it wasn’t released until 1974, rising to just #11 on the charts.
I’m also going to say this one also has the worst line, both lyrically and sung, of any song on this list. At 2:30 begins the following bit of banality:
One look at you and I learned that I could live without the rest…
(Oh, please don’t go for the obvious rhyme! I beg of you! Please!)
… I found the best!
Ugh. Just… ugh. And her voice doesn’t sell this bit of treacle either, cracking on ‘best’ like she knew the entire couplet was beneath her.
7. The Rainbow Connection, (Williams, Ascher, 1979). This is the only song on this list in which Karen’s version did not become the definitive one, losing out to a frog, and it’s the only song on this list which wasn’t even released, much less fully produced.
So why include it?
Karen’s voice and tone are as clear as ever in this 1980 recording, showing she still had it going into the 1980s. Made prior to her marriage, this is not a full version: Karen didn’t like the song so it was never fully produced. However, because of that decision, it avoided the overproduction which would have occurred had they made this outtake ‘ready for release’ and, frankly, it was improved by that decision.
So we really got lucky here, listening to Karen effortlessly tackle one of the more analyzed melodies of the 70’s.
6. Goodbye to Love, (Carpenter, Bettis, 1972). Many consider this Karen’s finest work, and with good reason. Her melancholia worked perfectly with such lines as “all I know of love is how to live without it” and “No one ever cared if I should live or die”, with Richard at the peak of his songwriting and arranging powers.
The problem? Holy hell, it’s a bit too sad! “All the years of useless search will finally reach an end. Loneliness and empty days will always be my friend.” Yikes, someone says this to me and I’m starting a suicide watch on that person. Also, there’s are two guitar solos and while the first truly augments the song, the second solo, which goes a full minute all the way through the fade out, again breaks the golden rule of producing Karen – you only need Karen front and center, thanks. c.f. “Close to You” if you have any questions.
5. We’ve Only Just Begun, (Williams, Nichols, 1970). Easily the most positive song on this list, I’ve already talked about the origins of one of the all-time wedding classics enough in the first article.
Regardless, Begun is where the magic truly began for these two as it was Richard’s song as much as Karen’s, with his arrangements and, hell, even finding the song and thinking it would work. You can hear the influence of the Beach Boys on Richard in this song with the harmonies. Really, just one where everyone was hitting on all cylinders.
Karen’s voice in this song is rather jarring - you would expect happiness given the subject matter, yet Karen sings this as someone who rather pensive and frightened of her new stage in life. The lines “white lace and promises” and “a kiss for luck and we’re on our way” descend melodically (as do “so many roads to choose”, and “we start out walking and learn to run”, following. Note the interesting key change - the first ends in Esus7 (sadder), the second ends in E-maj (happier, leading to the chorus)).
Regardless, the overall concerned tone is kept vocally throughout the song, with her finally singing, hopefully, possibly trying to convince herself that everything is going to be OK: ‘and yes we’ve just begun’, again resolving in the happier key of E on that last phrase.
Just a true masterclass in how to write a modern pop song with multiple emotional layers. As I said, we’re getting to the point where any of these can be #1.
4. Rainy Days and Mondays, (Williams, Nichols, 1971). One of the unexpected joys of doing the research for this was finding the large number of reaction videos based upon people hearing the Carpenters for the first time. My favorite is the one below, by DayOne Reacts (Her “Superstar” react video is classic as well). Angela starts tearing up on the first note sung by Karen and then gets completely overwhelmed within a minute and her reaction upon seeing Karen drumming while singing is priceless – it takes her 30 seconds to process that the “Voice”, as she constantly refers to Karen, is also drumming.
Musically, it was a perfect match of voice to material. The verses are almost always in the lower part of her register, even the choruses, as they rise to bring energy in the song, are sung in her lower registers.
Shout out to the harmonica part as well.
3. Yesterday Once More, (Carpenter, Bettis, 1973).
Richard’s second songwriting entry on this list, Karen hits what I think is the clearest note of her career with the B she carries in “shine” at 0:56-0:58 in the link. Note that Richard falls back on his nostalgia kick, and this songs placement on the album does precede that bizarre faux radio call-in gimmick mentioned above (which was apparently repeated for SEVEN iterations).
This can be also considered a companion piece to my #2 – I imagine the singer of this song to be much older than the person who sings the next song, finally ending her reminiscing with “oh, honey, I loved those songs so much I once hooked up with a guitarist like a damned groupie and, when he left, I then poured my heart out in anguish for a month… and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.” “What? What was that last, grandma? What?”
Which takes us to…
2. Superstar, (Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell, 1969). “Loneliness, is such a sad affair….” Yes it is. and loneliness comes through in every note of this brilliant recording, the production and arrangements a perfect match for Karen’s 1971 vision of the emotional journey of a young star struck woman who had a one-night relationship with a guitarist. Karen took the subjects pain at face value, internalized it instead of mocking it, and gave us this classic. Many vote this the best song of her career and I won’t argue. But it’s not #1 here.
1. For All We Know, (Karlin, Royer, and James, 1969) This Fred Karlin song won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1970 as sung by Larry Meredith for the film Lovers and Other Strangers. However, it was the Carpenters version which made the song famous during the voting period, (though they were not allowed to play the song at the Award ceremony as they or their music had never appeared in a movie). Regardless, For All We Know is 2:33 of melancholic Karen perfection. A supposed love song, it’s about a woman settling for a man she doesn’t love, but is telling herself how love may grow, for all we know.
Two things make this my #1:
a. No double-tracking of Karen’s voice. It’s just her, no technology.
b. Minimal harmonics, and those that are there, work.
If you gave me the task of pointing out the one song which highlighted their best qualities while minimizing their worst, this is the song I would choose. And for that reason, it is #1.
… To think she would literally be playing out this scenario in 1980 with Tom Burriss just gives me chills.