Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Best Ever

Frances painted this record while listening to it, and said, "Their music is like the best thing I ever heard or sawn." I tend to take "best evarr y'all" with a grain of salt, but when the enthusiasm is for a Carpenters record, it's totally justified. You can take it from me! It seriously almost just doesn't get any better than this one Carpenters record, Now & Then. Arranged and orchestrated by (the best arranging genius ever) Richard Carpenter. Sung and sung and sung by his sister Karen, who had a voice than which there has never been a more perfect one. Never. Only just the littlest, tiniest glimpse of vibrato on the long notes. Soulful depth of tone. No breathiness, just all note. Emotion is there but it's curiously cold. It draws you near with its sad warmth but resists becoming overwhelmed itself. It is unbelievable, heartbreaking.

The elephant: "Sing". I was born in 1972, the year that a staff songwriter for Sesame Street wrote it. It then went inside the minds of millions of people, deep inside, securing a little nugget of joy inside our hearts. Richard and Karen heard it and they were like, ok we'll just own that now. And they did. The harp and flute intro can really make me cry.

"That's the car and the house and the nature and stuff."

(By the by. The staff songwriter was Joe Raposo. Dude killed it in the Seventies. He wrote the theme song from Sesame Street ("Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?") and all the best Muppets songs, like "Bein' Green" and "C Is for Cookie", AND the theme song from Three's Company. He was a first-generation Portuguese American from Fall River, MA, and though I can't find any confirmation of it on the Internet, I distinctly remember there was a plaque honoring him as a resident of Somerville, MA, right around the corner of Washington St. and Boston St., by where the O'Brien highway crosses over, right at the base of Prospect Hill, blocks away from where I lived for a time, a block from the castle that claims the first raising of the American flag.)

But emotions! Oh man. Feelings. This record goes deep inside the heart. Karen was deeply, deeply sad. They had a lot of songs about hopeless, despairing depression ("Rainy Days and Mondays" comes to mind), but the one on Now & Then, never a hit, is devastating. "I Can't Make Music":

Here I am just sittin' around
With an old piano in a vacant room
And the same old feelin's come again
So uncertain hurtin' scared
I thought I grew, but here I am again
I shoulda seen the train be passin' thru
I thought I knew

And I can't make music
No I can't make rhyme
No I can't do anything
To take me away this time

"That's me singing 'I can't make music; I can't make anything"... no wait... "Sing, make something simple, make your life really really long."

But then there's the redemption. The sweet loss of cares in joyous memory. Richard and Karen knew that music was the key, and they lavished a whole side of this album on their own tweaked, sweet versions of the tunes that inspired them, bookended by the familiar ode to nostalgia "Yesterday Once More". In a nice touch, they got a really obnoxious deejay (the same one who would show up four years later on the mind-scrambling, Grammy-nominated Klaatu cover "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft") to do between-song banter. It's a real rough listen. You have to listen to the notes they're not playing.

The songs they chose all date from 1960-1964 - but if you had asked me when any of them was from, I would have said "the Fifties". It's all really famous songs, like "Johnny Angel" and "Da Do Ron Ron". What happened was, the Fifties happened, and the jazz mixed with the rockabilly and the rhythm and blues, and the modern teenager was born, and then the Nineteen-Fifties ended, and "The Fifties" started in the early Sixties, when the record labels and the radio stations and whatnot started getting really established and doing business. Then "The Sixties" happened in the second half of the Sixties, and then by nineteen seventy-three, when Now & Then came out, the events of ten years before were as legend, seen in the misty past of the southern California baby boomer enclave from out of where Richard and Karen stare dazedly at a bepalmed suburban landscape behind the glass of a GTO or Mustang or whatever. Like if someone now was all, "Man, The Killers and Justin Timberlake were the touchstones of my glorious youth." IT REALLY HAPPENED. This is how the technology and the industry and the media created the narrative we live within. Nostalgia. The best ever.

"That's the name of the record."

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