The Carpenters singing “Only Yesterday”:
I grew to love the Carpenters.
At first, coming right after the wild 60’s, they seemed too tame to me. Their forte is restraint, not bombast. Karen Carpenter is precisely the opposite of Janis Joplin — although I think they might actually have become friends, had they met.
Almost all of their songs were composed by Richard Carpenter. He was (is) a trained musician, jazz pianist and skilled arranger — he arranged their songs and recorded/performed them, too. Plus — all the background vocals are by Karen and Richard overdubbing themselves. The session musicians could vary, but always included Richard. Their touring band also varied — including Cubby O’Brien, from the Mouseketeers, as their drummer for a while.
Karen Carpenter actually began as a drummer. She was quite skilled and talented. There’s a youtube video of her performing as a drummer on a variety show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdHyzGXAJPg
On it, she looks much happier and far more animated than she ever did as a singer — as great as she was. She didn’t really like being a singer and, from what I’ve read, thought of herself as “a drummer who sings,” rather than a singer who can do percussion, too.
The Carpenters’ songs were brilliantly, carefully-crafted pop songs. To really appreciate them, you have to compare the Carpenters to ’50’s pop groups more than to those from the late ’60’s. Their songs had a “sheen” like the ’50’s (think: “Four Lads”), that was not prized as much in the late ’60’s (with exceptions, of course, like “The Mamas and the Papas”). By the early ’70’s, it was becoming acceptable again.
Karen always had a gorgeous voice (“a beautiful instrument,” as Barbra Streisand told her), that was best utilized by emphasizing it over a background (like Bing Crosby did, except that in his day, this had to be done by having him stand closer to the mike, while everyone else was further away; no multi-track recording). I’ve heard early Carpenters tapes. Karen’s voice is just part of the ensemble. It was Herb Alpert and Burt Bacharach (A&M records) who recognized what she had, and what they had to do with it).
The backgrounds were deliberately “dreamy,” sort of like Impressionist music and painting. I think Richard chose to use only their voices, to maintain a certain auditory consistency. Or maybe it was just a “control” thing.
By “Only Yesterday,” Karen had advanced somewhat as a singer per se. She always had a beautiful sound, but not much in passion and very elementary phrasing. Here, I think she shows some real phrasing — minimized, in the Carpenters’ restrained style, but definitely there. I also hear some passion, too: I think she builds from holding back in the beginning section to (almost) letting go in the chorus. It makes me think of the great “girl-groups.”
Hal Blaine on drums — a famous session musician — gives a “counterpoint” to the otherwise rigid style (but the one that works best for the Carpenters) of the arrangement. Listen to what he’s doing in the background. What a finely-crafted pop song this is. The lyrics are really well-written. The music — by Richard — certainly owes something to an early Carpenters hit — “Only Just Begun.” In fact, some of the riffs and chord progressions are right out of there. So are the oboes. How “’50’s!” But it still stands on its own.
I heard it on the radio yesterday. I couldn’t get it out of my head for the rest of the day. I listened to it again this morning on youtube. I don’t care much for the video. It gave me a chance to watch Karen singing, yes. But for me, too many image-changes distracted from the listening. It worked for the Beatles in “A Hard Day’s Night” — for my money, the first music video. But the Carpenters deserve a different, more intimate, less cluttered presentation.
I didn’t like everything I’ve heard the Carpenters do. They did a cover of “Mr. Postman” that was waaay too “cute,” in which their “restraint” was out of place. But when they do the right material, in the way that is most natural for them — I can hardly help but get a little teary.
2/9/16 — I happened to see a program on The Carpenters on ch. 21 (a local listener-supported TV station) a couple of days ago. It was deeply touching. At one point in the show, Richard Carpenter was playing a solo piano version of one of the group’s hits. I realized that he was much more than a skilled musician and arranger. He, as much as Karen (possibly more), had defined the group’s musical identity. His musical choices allowed her to stand out the way she did. He made the best use of what her voice could do.