The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Saturday, November 15, 2003  

Or, More Properly, To What I’m Listening

Blogs, unfairly I think, get a bum rap from the sluggish side of the media writ large for being too intimate and personal, though the sub-genre of “The Song That’s In My Head Right Now” long has taken a justifiable beating.

I’m sympathetic to the critics’ position on this, but with plenty of spare time on my hands lately, I’ve pulled out some of the oldest music in my lamentabe and sorry CD collection, and I was surprised to be reminded how much I enjoy some of the performers and groups I’ve been all too quick to forget.

(Warning: Nerd alert! Go forth at your own peril.)

For example, I’ve listened repeatedly to “Interpretations: A 25th Anniversary Celebration,” a collection of the best of The Carpenters. As my friend C.M.K. said the other day when I mentioned this particular CD, “What a voice,” adding, “How haunting.”

Absolutely. Even if Karen Carpenter were still living her voice would appropriately and correctly be described as “haunting.” Better yet, I like singing along with Carpenter, in private of course, because her voice gives a baritone like me two options: sing along at the same tones or sing an octave below, the alternatives being equally and readily achievable, if less aesthetically pleasing than the original.

And do you know what? Carpenter really was a very good drummer.

Don’t laugh. I’m serious. You have to see some of the earliest footage of Karen and Richard Carpenter performing to appreciate this, and I suspect very few people have. (It’s a long story. Maybe another time.) The stereotypical portrait of Miss Carpenter tapping out a few dilettante-ish slaps on the snares is historically inaccurate. Almost outrageously so.

In fact, Carpenter was an accomplished drummer. What happened to detract from that deserved reputation is that Carpenter’s managers and handlers, realizing the power (and monetary value) of her exceptional voice, wanted to get her front of stage, out from behind the drum set. And so, as a first step, and to Carpenter’s dismay, they had her almost faking the drums so as not to distract from her vocals. Eventually they forced her to put the drums behind.

Meanwhile, I also have been spending a great deal of time listening to “Creeque Alley: The History of the Mamas and the Papas.” A two-CD collection of more than 50 songs, the title says it all. The Mamas and the Papas single “Creeque Alley” is a masterpiece, probably the most unique song coming out of the 1960s, amazing not only for the spectacular harmonies the quartet achieved but the unusual and, to my mind, as yet unduplicated, distinctive structure of its cleverly mysterious lyrics. (“When Cass was a sophomore, planned to go to Swarthmore, but she changed her mind one day . . .”)

And how about Cass Elliot, also dead? What a voice. “Haunting,” I’d say.

That’s all for now. Next up: Connie Francis, Patsy Cline, Carly Simon, and Cher. (Hey, I warned you about the nerd thing.)

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