Karen Carpenter has a clear, strong voice. But there is a lot more to her singing than that -- she is also a brilliant artist and she does some very neat things in her songs. She also has some defects as a singer which might contribute to making her music seem either simple or boring. This makes Karen Carpenter a very interesting singer to analyze.
The stand-out feature of Carpenter's singing is her long notes -- she sings a lot of long notes, her songs are chosen for them, and they can be beautiful. Her voice of course is clear and strong. But at her best, there is a lot more to them than that.
An extension is what the singer does to extend the length of a note. Karen Carpenter has extensions to die for. On a bad day, Carpenter just sings vibrato on her long notes. But she usually extends her notes in the traditional manner -- she starts with a clear note, then later adds the vibrato. Then she usually puts a drop at the end.
Noteworthy extensions occur the last notes on "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "We've Only Just Begun". She extends these notes with what I will call a "second push" -- there is a modulation in pitch produced by a pulse in loudness, as if she was starting the note again. I don't know of any other singer who does this.
Carpenter often scoops notes, including her long notes. They seem to be traditional rock scoops of about a major third. To me, Carpenter's scoops are very harmonic -- she makes clearer than most what note she is starting her scoop from.
One of the most beautiful features of her long notes are the drops at the end. They are not that obvious, but if you listen for them, they are there. ("Superstar" is her only famous song without a drop, as far as I know, and in my opinion the song suffers for that.) Her drops, like her scoops, are to a well-defined note below the note she is singing, presumably to a note in the harmony. It manages to define that note and yet be a ver short drop -- you could easily listen to her songs and not notice them.
If I try to mimic her drops, or do a purposeful drop, it comes out much too large. The only way I have found to produce drops like Carpenter's is to just think what note I want to drop to. Then somehow the drop occurs accidentally. This takes A LOT of concentration while singing. I have no idea whether Carpenter is doing her drops intentionally or accidentally.
Soft Versus Hard Voice
A "hard" voice is like an opera singer sings; a "soft" voice will be breathy. At least in her early songs, Carpenter uses voicing in a simple but effective way. She will start with a soft voice, then slowly increase the hardness as the song progresses. I think the increases occur on the long notes, adding to the beauty of the extension.
This is my term for the deviations from a clear voice. One use of these is to convey sadness (or grief, or something like that.) Carpenter does this on a recording of "California Dreamin'", including even some falsetto (I think). This is a very early recording of hers.
Otherwise, as far as I know, Carpenter does not use the unclear voice for effect. However, she does not always sing with a clear voice -- about 40% of her songs will have some creak. (If you close your throat and produce a soft breath, you can produce creak. Just imagine that added to regular singing.)
It is not obvious why she does it. It is not the sound one makes for crying, nor is there any tendency I can see for her creaks to occur at sad or bitter parts of a song. It is not exactly right for a sexy creak -- there isn't enough phlegm, to be crude. It still sounds a little sexy, and could pass for sexy, except that I could see no pattern of it occurring at sexy parts of the song.
If anything, it just sounds old or wise. There may be some tendency for the creaks to occur at "wise" parts of the song, perhaps when Carpenter is brining us into her confidence.
My guess is just that when she sings soft, her voice has a natural creak.
Karen Carpenter was originally a drummer, not a singer. She apparently does not play the drums on any of her songs. But perhaps because of her training, her singing tends to be very much on the beat. A very good example is the phrase "Rainy days and mondays always get me down" in the song "Rainy Days and Mondays." It is extremely natural in normal speech and even in singing for "rain" to be longer than "y", and for "days" and "mon" to be longer than the intervening "and". But Carpenter sings them with near perfect rhythm. The drum actually follows this rhythm too, so you can hear her following the rhythm.
This is not always for the good, I suspect. I find her rendition of "Rainbow Connection" to be too sharp and rhythmic. Of course, when she does ease into a note in that song, it is more pleasurably for the contrast. But I suspect the song should be less rhythmic.
As noted below, she uses the ending consonant for rhythmic beat in the song "Rainbow Connection". This is probably the clearest use of this that I know of. If she uses it there, she probably uses it in other places.
We've Only Just Begun
This song contains beautiful extensions. The extensions all contain drops.
The only notable extension is the last note, where she varies pitch in the extension. Works for me, and it might foreshadow the pitch change the orchestra makes when they end.
The most notatable part of this specific song is "us" in "talkin' it over, just the two of us." I cannot tell if the effect is stronger the second time this line is sung, or if they two are identical. Anyway, I cannot describe the emotion or combination of emotions conveyed in this single word. I rate it one of the best notes in all of music.
Notably, neither of the us's is extended. They are both drops. But the second "us" is what might be called a "sung" drop. The normal drop is a falling off in pitch. It usually occurs around the closing of the note -- Carpenter extends the vowel sound and then drops on or near the consonants. There is usually a sharp drop in loudness to accompany the drop in pitch. But sometimes the drop is sung. This is not completely true for the second "us". I think there is a decrease in loudness. But that is for effect, not because she is closing off the note. And the drop starts on the vowel. This is a short note to create any effect on
"And when the evening comes, we smile". There is a typical Carpenter creak on "we". I can't that it accomplishes anything, but I like it. She doesn't do it the second time this phrase is sung.
The Rainbow Connection
This is an interesting song to analyze. (It can be found on the "best of" 2CD set Carpenters Gold.) I feel like one of Carpenter's strengths is her excellent sense of rhythm. In this song, I think she overdoes it -- most of the time, the song is too rhythmical.
As "properly" song, the entrance to the notes should be soft; the entrance has to be caressed. Carpenter does this for some notes. In fact, arguably, it is beautiful when she does it, for the contrast. I am still guessing that the rhythmicality is too much.
The softest caress comes at the end, where it should be. It is really a lovely moment. The last few words "dreamers and me." If you listen carefully, you can hear the end of one word actually held over to the next note. So, as it is sung, the last two or three times: "dreamer zan d'me" In this, everything is run together -- there are no breaks between words.
There is actually a very clear use of a secondary consonant to create rhythm. In the first time we here "Some day we'll find it, the rainbow connection" Here's what happens. Some is right on the beat. Day is right on the beat, even though a natural tendency in speech would be for it to precede the beat, and that is how it would probably be usually sung. Day is on the beat, we'll is on the beat, it starts on the beat. There would normally be a one-beat pause. The 't' in it occurs right on this beat. Then all the remaining syllables are on the beat, including a strong 'b' sound in 'rainbow', up to "tion" in connection, which precedes the beat (and hence is experienced as softer and more caressing).
On each verse, there is a part that goes back and forth between two notes. In the first verse, the words are "so we've been told and some choose to believe it." This is sung very rhythmically except for a delay on "choose" and a very early final "it". There are essentially two different principles that could be evoked for how to explain it. First, one could take it as a Bach-like motif, so it should receive perhaps no scoops. The other is that it is boring and so differential scoops are needed to break the monotony. I think the second principle would take precedence here -- it is too boring to be a real Bach motif. I think she maybe should have sung some without scoops.
But the scoops are, ultimately boring. On the first verse, the there are three large scoops, all identical, then two smaller scoops, reflecting the change in chord structure. These last two also seem identical. The unchanging scoops do not relieve the boredom (except for the one change). And they tend to evoke the Bach principle: Scoops don't work well in a Bach-like melody.
And yet. There is real action happening on the bottom note. As near as I can tell, each of the bottom notes of the series gets a larger drop (than the drop on the previous bottom note). This would seem to take great skill as a singer, and considerable preparation -- I cannot imagine how someone could do that without any practice.
I don't know what to make of the final effect. My first thought is that it has a very "Carpenters" sound. And it is interesting enough, but I think not inspired.
And unless my ear is deceiving me, she does not hold pitch on the final last note. It has a very long extension (but there is a very short break suggesting that an extension was added to her extension.)
I should note that this is a "work lead". Apparently she sang this by herself and it wasn't intended to be the final version, it was just something for the musicians to work with. The background singers and orchestra were added later.