The following article and follow-up appeared Dec. 23, 2005, in the Chicago Tribune


AN APPRECIATION

Carpenter's voice: The stuff of dreams


By Chris Jones
Tribune arts critic
Published December 23, 2005

The other frigid night, I sat alone on the snowy street outside my house listening to Karen Carpenter sing "I'll be Home For Christmas" on my car radio.

I love that voice.

It hit notes with such surety. Its evocative lower register had a richness that no female pop singer ever has matched. But most important of all, it was such a guileless instrument.

Carpenter sang without attitude -- but also without excessive sentiment. In other words, her voice was at once incredibly beautiful and strikingly neutral.

And that's exactly what "I'll be Home for Christmas," my favorite song from this time of year, requires. First recorded in 1943 by Bing Crosby with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra, the lyrics first were intended as a kind of war-time fantasy, as if dreamed by a soldier stuck overseas and dreaming of home and hearth. The ultimate line of the song, after all, is a sad one: "If only in my dreams."

As with her other Christmas recordings, Carpenter's version was infinitely more complex.

Listen to her sing this Christmas ballad and you can hear a weary business traveler shoving past delays at O'Hare. You can sense a mother rushing back to her kids who count on her. And you can detect a lover desperate for a warm bed with someone in it.

All at once.

And although it's been nearly 23 years since Carpenter's death (at the age of 32), the recording will forever come with a certain sadness. Sometimes, it can feel like she's singing about a home where someone is missing for good.

Frankly, the impact of the song all depends on one's mood of the moment -- and at what point the listener is in their life. That was Carpenter's brilliance -- that coupling of certitude and pliability, that unique combination of eroticism and maternal comfort.

This is a song that revolves around a promise. And Carpenter's voice had the unmistakable sound of one who always kept her promises.

When I was single and lonely, this singer and this Christmas song evoked the home I wanted and the person I wanted in it with me. Now she -- and it -- make me think about the nature of my home and its place in my priorities. The world of the song is both a confirmation of what we have, and yet, given the frantic way life goes at this time of year, also an elusive dream.

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cjones5@tribune.com

Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune


READERS RESPOND

Still carrying a torch for Karen Carpenter


Chris Jones
Published January 6, 2006

Twenty-two years after her death, Karen Carpenter is sorely missed.

On Dec. 23, Tempo published my short appreciation of the late, great singer, whose version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" is my favorite seasonal recording. Bar none. The response from readers was immediate, great in size and strikingly emotional.

Many readers noted the astonishing richness and honesty of Carpenter's voice, praising its purity, beauty and complexity. Some implied a certain embarrassment in being a Karen Carpenter fan, a state of being that many said they must keep secret.

A few suggested there were other voices worthy of compare. But most argued otherwise.

Carpenter has always been able to wriggle below my defenses. Clearly, I'm not alone.

ST. CHARLES -- How I enjoyed your article on Karen Carpenter. I agree with you 100 percent. What a beautiful and unique gift she had, and such a tragedy to lose her.

I'm so tired of the "pop-divas" with their machine-gun vibratos reaching into the upper scales. While they may be considered technically accomplished, they are indistinguishable from one another.

When Karen Carpenter is singing, my head turns and I say "aaaahhhh," only one of her!

Merry Christmas.

-- Sheridan Florence

AMES, Iowa -- "Strikingly neutral" is a good way to express the quality of Karen's voice. For me, she nailed the note without artifice and tremulous, never sneaking up from behind or the side of a tune to strike something different the way so many others try. Who needs "different" when being true to the music as written is all that's required? But of course that's the problem. Few are able to "just sing."

Thanks for the well-expressed tribute. It's so good (and often rare) that someone agrees with me.

-- Phyllis Harris

NAPERVILLE--For years I have argued that the best female vocalist that I had heard in my lifetime was Karen Carpenter. Had her life not been cut short, I'm certain that more people would feel this way. Her presentation was pure and effortless.

She never seemed to strain to reach a note. She didn't flaunt her talents with departures from an original composition the way that many contemporary artists do. You can keep your Barbras, your Mariahs, and your Celines. In my book, they all pale in comparison to Karen Carpenter.

John Madormo

LEMONT -- I don't normally read your section of the newspaper, but the Carpenter name in the headline caught my attention. I share your appreciation for the unusual quality of Karen's voice and the way she delivered the lyrics. I was such a fan that when I hear her voice, I get angry with her for taking it away from me so soon.

-- John Pianowski

SYCAMORE -- Last night as I turned into my development after driving from O'Hare, I was listening to Karen Carpenter sing "I'll Be Home for Christmas," so it was very enjoyable to read your column of an appreciation for her. I am a longtime listener of all Carpenters albums and agree that there has not been another voice such as hers. Thanks for the very nice article, remembrance and sentiment.

As I'm sure you know, she also played drums (occasionally) for their band and she had great taste in automobiles, once owning a beautiful rust and beige 1956 Chevrolet convertible.

-- Wed Lundsberg

CHICAGO -- Thank you for an unexpected gift for Christmas: a touching tribute to one of the most gifted female singers of all time, Karen Carpenter. There are not many writers out there who would delve into the obscure subject of the purity and near perfection of Karen's technique. Karen's voice had no pretense. She knew where to go with a song and simply delivered. The minute you hear that rich alto, you know it's Karen.

Call it what they will, but many of us have a love affair with a voice that is so intimate, it almost seems as if she's right there in the room with you. Her untimely death leaves me to wonder what other great material would have emerged from this amazing talent. Richard Carpenter once said: "If I knew we were going to lose her so young, I would've not had her sing stuff like `Beechwood- 45789.'"

Thank you again for reminding us of that inimitable voice, the "girl next door" we all loved and still love: Karen Carpenter.

-- Matthew Cortez

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS -- I just read your article on Karen Carpenter and the song, "I'll Be Home for Christmas." I immediately got a sense of deja vu -- in the sense that you took the words right out of my mouth -- words that I have been saying since they started playing holiday songs this year. The song itself is beautiful -- but what makes it so special is the rendition by Carpenter. I've heard it sung by countless singers in all genre's of music -- but no one brings the unique touch that she does -- with her crisp, clear (you hear every note) -- and in her own way, soulful singing. Her voice was an amazing instrument -- and never more perfect than in singing this song. It is such a shame that we were robbed of such a talent.

-- Linda Rudolf

Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune



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