CARPENTERS: Fantasy Music League, Group A: Carpenters

Fantasy Music League, Group A: The Carpenters

I love the Carpenters. Their beautifully crafted songs however, regrettably, remain deeply unfashionable, seemingly imprisoned forever within the impenetrable bunkers of ‘easy listening’ radio stations. Nonetheless, if you listen to ‘Singles 1969 – 1981’ (2005) on hybrid CD/SACD (produced for SACD by Richard Carpenter), it is a stunningly good sounding set of 21 tracks that beautifully realise the peerless vocal quality of Karen Carpenter. When heard on a high-resolution hi-fi system, its content and superior sound quality, on either CD or SACD, does help to remove the saccharine residue of appalling media misrepresentation.

Due partly to my dissatisfaction with the coma-inducing association of the Carpenters with compressed sounding radio stations, and partly my curiosity as to what could happen if I had access to that wonderful voice - I have this recurring dream about Karen Carpenter, where I can use just her perfectly recorded vocals (and Richard & Karen’s backing vocal harmonies) to create alternate musical interpretations. Here are some examples…

To do this I would need ….

some serious talent. Thus, being a fantasy, some of the players would be from the beyond, as well as the living… Of course I would have Jimi Hendrix on lead guitars for his ability to bend, twist and fashion radical arrangements; not just from raging bombast like ‘Machine Gun’ but also languid, lugubrious delights like ‘Little Wing’. The second guitarist would be Joe Satriani, as he has an unquenchable ability to mould his instrument to the music rather than be moulded by it. Imagine their amazingly melodic guitar-playing twisting and turning around Karen Carpenter’s vocal on ‘Ticket To Ride’ where she sings with hope, and then epic heartbreak within the space of just a few lines; this is in contrast to the comparatively more upbeat rendition of the Beatles original.

Satriani could …

do the hopeful parts while Hendrix would seamlessly transition the mournful, regretful sections. The music for ‘Ticket To Ride’ could just be the two guitarists sharing, merging and then leaving the spaces left by the vocals. Hendrix and Satriani are so good that they could easily create an orchestra of sounds by themselves.

On rhythm-guitar has to be James Hetfield, the guitarist and vocalist of Metallica. He does some brilliant harmony, melody and rhythm work within the heavy thrash-metal idiom of Metallica’s music. He can thus focus the grand thrust and dynamics of sometimes lengthy songs with precision chord changes that provide direction and a reassuringly steady grip, such as on ‘To Live Is To Die’ from ‘…And Justice For All’ (1988). Hetfield plays acoustic guitars beautifully, where classical-folk structures reveal deft and short ‘lullabies’ within the interludes from the thrash-metal power-drive. To give even greater depth to rhythms, cellist Jacqueline du Pré would be breathtaking for crescendos, as well as subtle deeper waves of cello to underpin the music. The thought of Hetfield, du Pré and Carpenter on ‘Yesterday Once More’ creating sublime musical tenderness, and then intensifying into emotional crescendos is mouth-watering.

Mike Oldfield …

uses folk-structures to drive some of his rock/pop guitar pieces rather than standard-issue blues-structures. His guitar playing is more elegant as a result, with lighter, faster responses. Consequently Oldfield doesn’t sound like a folk player, nor is he similar to a rock one. Skilful in electronics, folk-structures and inspiring arrangements like ‘Tubular Bells’ (1973), Oldfield is an ideal partner for Prince. At his best, Prince, from the funk-pop of ‘1999’ (1982), to the super-successful

pop-rock of ‘Purple Rain’ (1984) and the experimental ‘Sign “O” The Times’ (1987) can create wild, sensual musical atmospheres. On bass guitar I would use the late Cliff Burton. He was Metallica’s extraordinarily melodic and talented bass player. The versatile Dave Lombardo completes the rhythm section (see my previous post, The Return Of Lombardo).

Itzhak Perlman plays …

violin so gracefully, with delicacy, while remaining emotionally compelling – from dynamism to the faintest, haunting echoes. I also like the textural and rich tonal palate of the viola. One of my favourite viola players is modern classical composer Jocelyn Pook. Perlman and Pook would create stunning musical interplays, meshed with the melodic, classically-inspired, bass of Burton and the shimmering cymbal work of Lombardo on ‘Rainy Days And Mondays’. Here Prince and Oldfield can then delicately weave around the vocals and musicians with their quirkily harmonious flourishes, to emphasise differing shifts in emotions with their zeal for consummate perfectionist sophistication.

I like …

John Coltrane’s improvisational style, as shown on archive footage in the BBC TV Imagine series, where he played a complete live concert with just the one piece; his single, mesmerising instrumental take on ‘My Favourite Things’ from ‘The Sound Of Music’. Coltrane and Vangelis would form quite a stunning duo on ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’. For grand, percussive crescendos as on the ‘Alexander’ soundtrack (2004), and sweeping, soaring synthesiser highs from the ‘Blade Runner’ soundtrack (1982/1994) or delicate piano and moments of fine texture as on ‘El Greco’ (1998), Vangelis has an innate and intricate sense of melody and harmony that proves continuously listenable. So he is the ideal musician to create immense swathes of lush, high-resolution synthesiser backdrops for Coltrane to improvise melody and rhythm. Vangelis’ synthesisers can create different tones to orchestras, contrasting to the fulsome ‘real’ timbre of Coltrane improvising an accompanying harmony ‘vocal’ to Karen Carpenter’s recorded lead on ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’.

The music must …

be recorded brilliantly of course and for that the engineer and producer Steve Albini is one of the best I can think of, as his work concentrates on meticulous microphone placement and the simplest possible recording techniques which allows vibrant, real and unvarnished music to be revealed. Going from a multitude of microphones, consoles and master-tape recorders; including a daunting Studer A 820 MCH, suitable for two-inch tape, Albini’s Electrical Audio recording studio is comprehensively equipped for musicians who want to capture the sound of their instruments. Electrical Audio states that the A 820 MCH is “The high watermark of analog multitrack recorders.

This machine is the result of a perfect marriage between microprocessor aided function and 40 years of professional analog audio expertise. …Studer, in the late eighties decided to make the ultimate engineer/technician/musician's machine. They took application suggestions from engineers in the field to better facilitate given studio habits. The net result was a machine with (a) near perfect tape transport…”

Some of Albini’s best work is …

from unexpected sources, such as Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’ (1993) and ‘Ys’ (2006) by harpist and singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom. Instead of the obvious choice of using Vangelis or an orchestra for the slightly deranged but melodically catchy ‘Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft (The Recognised Anthem Of World Contact Day)’, I would just have Karen Carpenter’s lead vocals and Joanna Newsom on harp along with her eerie adult-child backing-vocals for the harmonies. This minimalist structure would make for a suitably surreal and extra-terrestrial take on the original light-hearted version.

I shall go for the popular choice of Brian Eno as producer because he tends to remove extraneous layers from compositions to reveal beautiful melody, harmony and rhythm. The Eno method would be particularly useful in focussing such a talented and varied bunch of musicians. On ‘Zooropa’ (1993) by U2, he helped the production by stripping away the occasionally congested layers of its predecessor, ‘Achtung Baby’ (1991), to form elegant and elongated pieces that were at turns intimate like ‘Numb’ and then soaring, for example ‘Stay (Far Away So Close)’ and the title-track. This enabled the music to beautifully go somewhere, rather than in a cyclical dirge.

Denmark

As well as Electrical Audio, how about an amazing, grand example of a recording venue, like the avant-garde Copenhagen Opera House, Denmark. When I experienced a performance there, during the winter of 2005, I was amazed at the sound produced by the orchestra out into the vast, oval-backed auditoria. This space (not within the stage), would be an ideal zone to record live sessions for a new version of ‘Bless The Beasts And Children’ for a sweepingly powerful adaptation where the original lullaby parts are replaced with huge crescendos.

One of the best …

sounding spaces I have yet to hear was within an unfinished building. The construction was concrete beam and block floor, while the walls and ceiling were Swedish structural timber (Masonite) utilising recycled newspaper insulation (Warmcel). Before it was surfaced, and therefore acoustically more reflective, this space was as near perfect as I have yet to hear, without the need for those ridiculous ‘egg-crate’ type recording studio wall panels. This would be a superb venue to create new, mesmerising rhythms for ‘Sing’, featuring Karen Carpenter’s original lead, and backing vocals (Richard & Karen Carpenter, and the Jimmy Joyce Children’s Choir), with the Ramones musically transforming it from an easy listening favourite, into the effervescent spirit of transcendent punk-rock, where the famous ‘la la la la la…’ chorus is repeated to take on new fiery emotions…

Sweet Dreams.