“If I Were A Carpenter”: An Unlikely Tribute Album

if i were a carpenter

Aside from being the era that saw the rise of rock bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and pop acts like Hanson and the Spice Girls, the 1990s was the time that an explosion of tribute albums flooded record store shelves. Numerous all-star compilations honoring the music of artists like Elton John, Leonard Cohen, Charles Mingus, Led Zeppelin, Curtis Mayfield, and Jimi Hendrix all appeared during the decade. One of the more intriguing projects to be released among this plethora of homages was If I Were A Carpenter, a musical paean to the sibling duo that ruled the AM pop radio airwaves for much of the 1970s. They recorded tunes from top songwriters like Paul Williams, Burt Bacharach, Neil Sedaka, and Carole King. The Carpenters scored numerous hits, which centered on Karen’s lovely and expressive voice and Richard’s multi-layered arrangements.

If I Were A Carpenter features a group of alternative rockers sharing their renditions of a number of Carpenters classics. Veteran producer Matt Wallace and music journalist Dave Konjoyan, who both have a long-time love and admiration for the music of The Carpenters, initiated the project. Many of the bands featured on the disc grew up listening to The Carpenters and were excited to be part of the album. Grant Lee Phillips, aka Grant Lee Buffalo, who covers “We’ve Only Just Begun,” has spoken of his appreciation for The Carpenters music (and Karen’s unforgettable voice) in interviews, as have some of the other artists involved with the disc, including Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde. It’s tough to make such iconic songs your own, but that’s just what bands like Redd Kross, who amped up the vibe with their cover of “Yesterday Once More,” manage to accomplish on this eclectic collection.

Highlights of the album include American Music Club’s stripped-down take on “Goodbye To Love,” and Bettie Serveert’s guitar-driven version of “For All We Know.” There’s also an energetic, pop-rock infused run-through of “Top of the World” by Japan’s Shonen Knife. The Cranberries provide a faithful version of “(They Long To Be) Close To You” while Sheryl Crow brings out the emotion in her lovely cover of “Solitaire.” Cracker turns in a stark rendition of “Rainy Days and Mondays,” which fits the melancholy tone inherent in the song’s lyrics. One of the most remarkable and striking tracks on If I Were A Carpenter is Sonic Youth’s dark-hued reading of the Leon Russell-Bonnie Bramlett tune “Superstar.” It’s a knockout rendition of this oft-covered song, which illustrates that a great tune can stand up to many styles and interpretations.

If I Were A Carpenter even features a cover version of a song the Carpenters covered, as Babes in Toyland take on “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,” originally recorded by the Canadian rock group Klaatu. Perhaps the ultimate stamp of approval given to the project is that Richard Carpenter himself plays keyboards and provides backing vocals on Matthew Sweet’s beautifully done version of “Let Me Be The One.” At first glance, or even first listen, this album might seem like an odd pairing of styles, but the contrast of the often low-fi, occasionally harder-edged approach of the bands on the disc with the lush pop sounds of The Carpenters really clicks. Some tribute albums feel like hastily assembled collections of stray cover versions and B-sides thrown together to cash in on a celebrated artists’ name and reputation, but If I Were A Carpenter was obviously crafted with a true appreciation and love for music of The Carpenters, and that’s why it’s still worth listening to over 25 years after its original release.

-John Visconti

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3 comments on ““If I Were A Carpenter”: An Unlikely Tribute Album

  1. Gary Theroux

    If one really loves the recordings made by an artist, they should buy those recordings. A “tribute” album simply compiles other artist’s interpretations (and mis-interpretations) of the songs that artist recorded the definitve versions of. In the case of The Carpenters, while the musical compositions they recorded were all well chosen, the magic came via Karen’s heartfelt, usually intimate and one-of-a-kind voice — plus Richard’s sympathetic backing arrangements. Nothing on “If I Were a Carpenter” comes within a country mile of the Carpenters’ original recordings. I should know — as I worked with Richard to assembole the 3 CD box set “Carpenters: Their Greatest Hits and Finest Performances.” P.S. The ugly cover of “If I were a Carpenter” is no help.

    • Gary,
      You are preaching to the choir. People who already know and like the Carpenters might be less likely to pick up a collection like this at first blush. To “cast a wider net”, the newer artists and “ugly” cover is designed to draw in an audience that may have considered the Carpenters “old-fogey music”. I worked in Adult Contemporary radio back then and got tired of “Top of the World” and other Carpenters schmaltz, as did many of my contemporaries. This album helped me lighten up on my automatic aversion of the saccharine-sweet songs. As I have aged, I have adopted a greater appreciation of the art of the Carpenters, ABBA, and other such popular “schmaltz” artists of that time and earlier. Compilations like this helps get new, curious audiences in the door. As a professional, you should appreciate anything that brings a larger crowd to the tent, and start listening/buying the original versions.

      • Totally agree. As a general matter, a cover version can breathe new life into old favorites, whether by merely adding a new vocal styling or completely transforming the work. Just think of all the Dylan covers, many of which surpassed the originals (i.e. Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower, the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man or My Back Pages). As for this album — I was a kid growing up in the early 70s, stuck listening to my parents’ Carpenters albums, and I abhorred them. They were the antithesis of the rock music I was just starting to discover. But this tribute album allowed me to appreciate songs I grew up hating (and, eventually, allowed me to actually turn back to the originals with newfound respect). The Carpenters tribute was particularly effective, including both fantastic artists (Sonic Youth, Bettie Serveert, Matthew Sweet), and a healthy blend of styles, some faithful to the originals, and some offering creative reinterpretations.

        A lot of tribute albums of the era were far less successful, often lining up lesser artists who did little to give a new spin to the originals. This was among the best.

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