We've Only Just Begun: Carpenters Remembered
June 11 and 12, Bridge Street Live, 41 Bridge St., Collinsville, (860) 693-9762, 41bridgestreet.com
Who's on your list of the all-time coolest or most-influential pop or rock stars from Connecticut? Depending on your age and style, maybe you've got Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore (raised in Bethel) on there. Or Weezer's Rivers Cuomo, who grew up near Storrs. Or perhaps Gene Pitney, the Rockville Rocket, the early-'60s pop crooner who hung out with the Stones and sang with George Jones. Maybe the indie-pop duo Mates of State? Or — if you go in for achy songs of love, AM radio schmaltz, air-whipped production styles and a hint of tragedy in your baroque soft pop — maybe the Carpenters, the brother-and-sister megastars of the '70s, might best represent the spirit of Connecticut.
Before you snort at the idea — dismissing the Carpenters' work as velvety muzak with soap-operatic and weepy overtones — consider that the Carpenters, Richard and Karen, who grew up around New Haven, have been the subject of a cult indie film by director Todd Haynes, who depicted Karen Carpenter's life and tragic illness. (She died at the age of 32, of complications related to her eating disorders). The film used only Barbie dolls and voice-overs. (Sonic Youth, incidentally, covered the Carpenters' "Superstar" on an indie-rock tribute to the band.) There may have been a strong element of ironic distance in all of that indie-rock treatment of the Carpenters. But their musical legacy gets the last laugh. As proof of the hold that those tunes still have on many American music fans, there's "We've Only Just Begun: Carpenters Remembered," which is set to have its Connecticut debut this week before hitting the road for Las Vegas, where the show seems destined to thrive. (You don't see anyone starting a Sonic Youth tribute band, do you?)
We spoke with vocalist Michelle Berting Brett, who fronts the group and has the challenge of trying to sing like Karen Carpenter. She's married to the show's producer Mark Brett. Berting Brett, a Connecticut native, said that as a singer she was occasionally told that her voice reminded listeners of Karen Carpenter's. The idea for the show took shape four years ago in Toronto, Canada. (Berting Brett's from Saskatchewan.) It started out as a few covers and sort of a cabaret act, and then the couple, who eventually married and settled in Connecticut, decided to flesh it out and make a full evening's entertainment.
"It's been such a long-term dream of mine to put a show like this together," says Berting Brett. "I grew up with the music. I was very influenced by Karen Carpenter. I used to always sneak in a Carpenters tune into my sets."
The show had its debut in February at a casino gig in Iowa. And it's fitting that it will touch ground in Connecticut, birth place of the Carpenters, for two nights at Bridge Street Live in Collinsville before shipping off to more casino shows in Vegas. (This isn't a "tribute" act, in that Berting Brett isn't impersonating Karen Carpenter.) This year marks the 30th anniversary of Karen Carpenter's death, as it happens.
For those who were born or came of listening age after 1982, it's possible that you might not have been as saturated in the music of the Carpenters as Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers, but it seems like one would have had to have been in a radio- and TV-free isolation chamber to not have the sounds of "Close to You," "Top of the World," "Superstar," "Rainy Days and Mondays" and several other Carpenters megahits etched on one's sonic memory. And then the duo's slow and sad version of "Ticket To Ride" and their 1977 UFO anthem "Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft" both rank up there among pop oddities. Even with the dusting of ironic kitsch appeal, the Carpenters artistry is impressive.
"Karen was such a gifted vocalist. She made it sound so simple," says Berting Brett. "She influenced so many people. It was such a specific tone that she had. She didn't sing with any affectation. It was just pure tone. She sang in those beautiful low registers. She had this incredible breath control."
Pop music often prizes raw expression and outsized, even overblown, emotional delivery, but Karen Carpenter had a kind of restraint and control that conveyed its own intensity. You could say that her style and the aesthetic of the Carpenters embodied something of the nation's idea of Connecticut — white-bread and buttoned-down — but the sense of tamped-down sadness conveyed with lush orchestrations and bubble-gum-Bach-meets-Bacharach touches told a different story too. Listen to the strings, the way a flute or an English horn or a harmonica or a cloud-like chorus of voca
ls answer a melodic line.
"It's out of the popular consciousness just how groundbreaking their arrangements were," says Berting Brett. And the cocoon-like effect of those recordings is part of what "We've Only Just Begun: The Carpenters Remembered" and the band behind it strive meticulously to replicate.
"The whole thing about it is that every arrangement is so specific," she says. "There was the layered vocals, and then there were orchestral sounds."
Over 40 years after the band started having hits, the sound of the Carpenters isn't vanishing into the past.
"Their music is still around," says Berting Brett.