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Carpenters – Rainy Days and Mondays

The_Carpenters_-_1971-1

Easy Listening.  No two words have inspired more hate and derision amongst rock hipsters and the pop music cognoscenti than these – frankly, for the most part with good reason. Also known in more deceptive terminology as “soft rock” or “adult contemporary,” Easy Listening music can be defined in its simplest terms as “melodic middle of the road or relaxing music without complicated tunes or a strong beat”(thanks Wikipedia!). The term was first used in the US in the mid 1960s to describe the playlists of certain radio stations that catered to mature audiences (i.e., your uncool parents and creepy older uncles).  Initially, Easy Listening encompassed mainly soft and inoffensive instrumental selections and pop standards performed by aging 1940s and 50s bandleaders and crooners (Percy Faith, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams).  But as the swinging 60s moved into the 70s, the genre also began to include both the softer sounds of rock stars of the period (The Long and Winding Road by the Beatles; Songbird by Fleetwood Mac) as well as a whole generation of performers whose entire raison d’etre was simply to create this seemingly innocuous and deeply mellow brand of pop.  Many of the most justifiably hated songs of the 1970s were part of the style (Feelings by Morris Albert, anyone?) but in the US, it was arguably the predominant musical genre of the decade, and many of its key proponents became household names:  The Captain and Tennille, Neil Diamond, James Taylor, Bread, Air Supply, Barbra Streisand. And the best selling and arguably the defining performers of this much-reviled genre?  Siblings Karen and Richard Carpenter, aka the Carpenters.

Born in Connecticut but subsequently raised in Southern California, the Carpenter kids were polar opposites: Richard, the older quiet one, played piano and composed music; his sister was much more outgoing, playing sports and the drums. When Richard began to record his music in his early twenties, he accidentally discovered his sister could sing when she accompanied him to a recording session and was asked to sing a track. And what a voice she had!  Blessed with natural perfect pitch and a deeply beautiful alto, Karen’s tone was perfect for the kind of deceptively simple and melodic songs Richard wrote. Their demos caught the attention of Herb Alpert, the head of A&M Records, who thought Karen’s voice would stand out in the marketplace. They recorded their first album, Ticket to Ride, in 1969, and although it was not successful, they struck gold with their second album, Close to You, whose title track hit no.1 in the US (no.6 in the UK) and began the duo’s run of hits over the next decade, which continued until Karen’s death in 1983.

While a few of the Carpenters’ songs are as banal as they seem and probably rightly hated by mainstream critics (Top of the World, Sing), the majority of them have a poignancy and a power that belies their simple melodies and arrangements.  Part of this was due to Richard’s studio wizardry (never underestimate the ability of a carefully placed string interlude or key change to provoke emotion), but most of it was because of Karen’s gorgeous voice and the way she wrapped it around a lyric like a warm and comforting blanket. Many Carpenters hits have the ability to make the listener feel both joy and sadness simultaneously but for me, the song that most evokes this feeling and is best representative of the glory of Karen’s voice is Rainy Days and Mondays.

 
For starters, there is the simplicity but universal truth of the lyrics (I mean, who DOESN’T hate rainy days and Mondays?)  Follow this with the way the arrangement starts out simply and then swells to orchestral bliss by the second chorus (followed by the inevitable, but truly welcomed, key changes). Finally, top it off with the supreme beauty of Karen’s voice: quiet at first, and then building with emotion along with the orchestration to a point of desperation. It is a heartbreaking and supremely lovely vocal performance.

Rainy Days and Mondays was a huge hit in the US, reaching no.2 (one of 5 Carpenters songs to reach that position). Sadly, despite their great success and popularity with the British public, Rainy Days and Mondays failed to even chart in the UK until it was re-released in 1993 to promote a Love Songs compilation.  Given its inclusion on that album and on many of the other Carpenters hits collections, however, it is thankfully well known in the UK. What is interesting is the way the critical tide has turned in recent years in favour of the duo – Karen’s voice is now universally lauded as a standard bearer for female vocalists and is frequently imitated (but arguably never equaled – Rumer, anyone?), and the group’s recordings – once hated and dismissed – are now seen as defining for the era.  Critics who once sneered at the duo now admit to being “lifelong fans.”  Easy Listening?  Perhaps, but great music, no matter what the genre, always survives the test of time.

 

606

 

Entered chart: initially did not chart, re-released and charted 13/02/1993

Chart peak:  63 (’93 release)

Weeks on chart:  2 (’93 release)

Who could sing this today and have a hit?  Well, obviously Rumer could probably do it justice but her hit making time appears to have come and gone. I’d like to see Ella Henderson give it a go – her voice appears to have the right combination of depth and power to make listeners cry like Karen could (or at least cause a sniffle or two).

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