Karen Carpenter, a generational voice

In high school, I was somewhat in the closet regarding my soft spot for the music of the carpenters. My main musical tastes and those of my friends allowed no respect for the sort of musicians who delivered syrupy schmaltz, didn’t perform with a wall of 100 watt marshall stacks, and never destroyed a hotel room while on tour. But at heart I was a romantic–if a carefully disguised one.

Perhaps initiated by Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ approach to music production of the late 1960s, the soft pop of the 1970s abandoned the production simplicity of the 60s in favor of full and lush arrangements–sometimes to excess, called over-production. These feel-good tracks, full of orchestration and free of controversial lyrics, were considered soulless by self-important ‘edgy’ music critics who gave the genre the accursed appellations “product” or “MOR” (middle of the road).

Fortunately, due to the magic of youtube we get an unusual glimpse behind the production. I believe this recording of Karen Carpenter is the center track of a three channel tape recording, containing the vocals, bass and drums. I suspect the flawless bass delivery was done by the peerless Carole Kaye, but I am not 100% sure.

If you are interested, there are other center-track playbacks of Karen available on youtube.

This center track contains a sound that almost nobody who grew up after the 1970s has ever heard on pop radio, or even knows exists: A woman alone with a Neumann microphone in a sound booth, laying down pure gold, in perfect tune, without special effects, and very little reverb. I refer to Karen Carpenter as a generational singer because a singer of her talent can be said to come along once in a generation–and I present this video as proof. Aside from the technical aspects, listen for what really counts: the emotion she conveys with powerful simplicity. I believe the lush production of the 1970s weakened this performance–but was required, by the mooks* of the time, to get it airplay.

PS. Whom who has seen the movie Tommy Boy can forget the scene where this song comes on car radio and each suggests the other can change the station, reluctantly leave it on, and ending up singing along with tears streaming down their faces.

* Mook is industry slang for a person in the music industry who has lots of power or money, who can make things happen, but who has absolutely no artistic judgement or taste. A typical mook primary criteria for green-lighting a song is that it sounds just like other current hit songs.

Leave a Reply