Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Carpenters - Ready to Die, Part 3: Lighten Up, Richard

An ongoing series on The Carpenters' A Song for You.
Part one here.
Part two here.
A Spotify songlist based on the track order for the cassette can be found here.

A Song for You takes a turn midway through side one. Richard, the peacemaker, to some people the Machiavellian mastermind who drove Karen to an early grave, comes around to lighten things up a little.

He begins with “Piano Picker,” a bit of fluff about how he got to be such a great pianist, and Exhibit A on this album in the case brought by many against The Carpenters on the charge of rampant and egregious corniness. The song bounces and tap dances like something straight out of the music halls circa nineteen-aught. One can imagine him playing this, mugging and grinning, to cheer Karen up when she was blue, keeping her in the studio, keeping her working.

An open letter, as an aside: Dear Richard. I heard you got really mad after director Todd Haynes suggested in the movie “Superstar” that you might be gay. Now, it’s not right to stereotype, but with your lisp coming through in stereo, even a child can tell you might not be like the other boys. Let me tell you, you are beautiful, no matter what they say, but if you don’t want people to think you’re gay, you might want to rethink lines like “Now the other guys are out playing with their girlfriends, and I’m still banging on the keys.” It’s fine! I’m a musician myself! I understand not fitting in, staying inside on beautiful days to practice, thinking about all the shit you sacrificed to do something that most people think of as “entertainment.” I even and especially get folks thinking you’re gay. Ultimately, you just have to do you. Be proud of who you are. All am saying is, really, you sound a little defensive. Sincerely, etc.

The nice Manhattan Transfer-like section in the middle, jazzy and tight and totally superfluous, really shows off Richard’s arranging skills. His talents as a musician, and as an artist, are on full display here, and the song doesn't overstay its welcome. It's the musical equivalent of the breezy fellow who just came into the party, shook some hands, told a few jokes, and then split, leaving a warm feeling and mild sense of vacancy.

Next comes the instrumental “Flat Baroque.” To keep the gay theme going, I used this song my freshman year in high school to soundtrack a mime performance I did of a hairdresser screwing up a customer’s ‘do. I minced about and pretended to cut hair, and mimed falling asleep and accidentally shaving my customer’s head. Yes, bad Scott, I stereotyped gays as flamboyant, effeminate hairdressers. It was 1984, and I’m sorry about that. The other kids loved it, and I think I got an A, but no excuses.This song is another jazzy little ditty with some nods to classical. There’s a basson line counterpoint that is charming as hell in this song, a highlight in a song whose sole purpose seems to be to charm and divert.

Richard served a crucial role in The Carpenters. He seemed to act as an anchor, keeping Karen grounded and working. It's easy to forget that he was his own person, an accomplished musician and arranger in his own right, and someone who was, I'm sure, deeply hurt by the early death of his sister. As light as he tried to make things, though, with his wit and his friendly demeanor, he couldn't really keep the truth of his sister's sorrow at bay.

Next: Back into the darkness, but gently, gently.

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