My parents graduated college in 1969, got immediately married, and went into the Peace Corps. Once their tour was over, they moved to Hawaii to attend graduate school. My dad did some of his PhD field work in New Guinea, so in the mid-70s my parents dropped out of society a second time. Upon returning to the US, my mom started graduate school and concluded the 70s by becoming pregnant with her first child, me. All this is to say that these early influencers of my musical taste spent their 20s during the 70s dropping in and out of pop culture, picking up the least-challenging trends of the day, which mostly includes singer-songwriter stuff in the years where their lifelong musical tastes gelled.
Pete recently asked me what the most “rockin’” music my parents listened to was and the best I could come up with is Billy Joel. He questioned this, all “they didn’t like the Beatles or anything?” I explained to him that they did, but that was kid stuff. Like, I might occasionally put Dookie on, but my adult tastes aren’t exactly the same as they were when I was in high school. Similarly, my parents’ repertoire as 30- and 40-somethings looked more like those patchy years in the 70s when they were picking up stuff here and there but not following music very closely. It follows, then*, that as a young child, my primary exposure to pop music included Cat Stephens, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart (oddly), and the Carpenters.
*So yeah, it makes sense to me why they hit the Wimp Rock so hard, but they couldn’t get interested in David Bowie or Cheap Trick? Frustrating.
This early exposure to the Carpenters in particular was aided by the Sesame Street connection. I found out today that “Sing” was originally written for Sesame Street! The Carpenters performed and released it after the fact as a fairly successful pop single. I recall very clearly knowing every word to “Sing” through repetition and my mom knew it from the radio and we would sing it together, particularly the “la, la-la, la, la” parts.
In the 90s the Carpenters became briefly trendy I think due mostly to the release of If I Were a Carpenter, the tribute album featuring Shonen Knife, Sonic Youth, the Cranberries, Cracker, Dishwalla, and Matthew Sweet and wow, it’s better than I remember! That Shonen Knife version of “Top of the World” holds a permanent spot in my brain because of the awkward cadence, but the enduring hit from this collection was “Superstar” as performed by Sonic Youth and rightfully so because it’s incredible. The video is really amazing too. Kim is wearing this floor-length red dress and Thurston’s in a tuxedo and it’s a pretty Sonic Youthy backhanded tribute and I love it. I’ve mentioned before that you shouldn’t read Kim Gordon’s memoir. One reason for that is her inability to describe why she’s so fascinated by Karen Carpenter, which basically comes down to “it sucks that she experienced so much abuse from her family and society,” which I don’t even think is what she means. I get it, it’s a hard thing to explain, but I’m also not including a chapter in my memoir about it.
It was also during this period that I picked up a copy of the Carpenters’ greatest hits collection from Columbia House. As a teenager, I was struck by how easy it is to love every one of their songs. They somehow avoid being boring while at the same time being aggressively mellow. It’s not just Karen’s voice. The songwriting is great but credits are all over the place. They performed a ton of covers and worked a lot with professional songwriters. Most frequently, Burt Bacharach and Hal David (previously gushed about in the “I Say a Little Prayer” post), but so did a lot of recording artists. Richard Carpenter’s songwriting is ok, but I think the magic of the Carpenters comes from his arrangements. They’re kind of old-fashioned even for the 70s. The backup vocals feel pre-rock n’ roll and the instrumentation feels orchestral, but with only ⅓ of the effort. It’s very unique and very satisfying.
“Rainy Days and Mondays” isn’t a super standout track, but it is my current favorite. Ask me again in a couple of months and I might give you another answer. This one happened to be written by my good friend PAUL WILLIAMS who is responsible for some of my favorite songs of all time, Cornball Category (see: “Rainbow Connection” and “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song”) but more importantly starred as Swan in one of the weirdest, most compelling movies I’ve only managed to see once, The Phantom of the Paradise. Gotta fix that.
Thematically, the song can only be described as melancholy. The mood is accomplished lyrically in a somehow novel but relatable way. A few snippets: “talking to myself and feeling old,” “walkin’ around, some kind of lonely clown,” “no need to talk it out, we know what it’s all about.” Musically, it’s enhanced by the notably atypical presence of a harmonica in Carpenters songs. It makes sense that the harmonica would show up in the Carpenters’ moodiest song. The backup vocals are old-fashioned and recording-studioey as always. Karen’s drums are soft and played with intention and great care. It all just comes together in a very precise equation of sweetness and a big fat bummer.
Pete does not share my love of this kind of music, but he is kind of fascinated by my insistence upon it. He was also good enough to buy me another copy of the Carpenters’ hit collection, years after I’d lost track of my old Columbia House copy (again, I likely unloaded it in a used record store when I needed cash in college or something). He’ll even cue it up for me if I’m clearly in need of cheering up.