POP / Chips off the old block: The Carpenters are hip - and that's official. Andy Gill on the indie world's unexpectedly heartfelt tribute to Karen and Richard Carpenter

Click to follow
The Independent Online
In the future, not only will everyone be famous for 15 minutes; if their career lasts that long, there's a more than even chance that a decade or two later they'll be treated to that vinyl equivalent of the celebrity roast, the tribute album. In recent months, artists as disparate as the Bahamian folk guitarist Joseph Spence and the psychedelic avatar Arthur Lee have been thus immortalised, in the case of the latter by a motley collection of no- hoper unknowns whom even the most fervent of indie specialists would struggle to identify. The minimal memorialising the marginal: such is the last stop before celebrity oblivion.

The latest such tribute album is a more intriguing affair than most, featuring a parade of (mainly American) indie acts offering their various interpretations of the Carpenters' hits. It's called If I Were a Carpenter, but, surprisingly, few choose the obvious tongue-in-cheek option, and the result is an album that is actually quite listenable, even if you wouldn't be caught dead listening to the originals. The covers range from the ingenuous pop spirit of Shonen Knife's 'Top of the World' to the orgiastic melancholy of American Music Club's 'Goodbye to Love' and Sonic Youth's downright spooky reading of 'Superstar', which will provide the first single taken from the album.

The project is the brainchild of a producer, Matt Wallace, and a journalist, David Konjoyan, closet Carpenters fans who would secretly meet to sing the duo's songs in their high- school lavatory. 'I started reading how hip, alternative artists like Chrissie Hynde, (Sonic Youth's) Kim Gordon and k d lang were huge fans,' says Konjoyan. 'I realised there has always been something specially poignant behind the Carpenters.'

In large part, of course, this poignancy is traceable to Karen Carpenter's premature death from heart failure caused by anorexia nervosa, a most unusual form of rock 'n' roll burn-out which cast a strange, dark shadow over the group's oeuvre, and which could be seen as symbolic of the pressures placed upon young women in the conformist, middle-American MOR world exemplified by the group's music.

'I think she may be the MOR equivalent of Ian Curtis,' suggests American Music Club singer Mark Eitzel. 'Rock 'n' roll always needs martyrs, and she was perfect.' Eitzel's group chose to cover 'Goodbye to Love', '. . . because it's the saddest song they ever sang, and Karen sings it with such a smile in her voice. They say the voice sings with the soul, and I think she did. If she was just another dull MOR chanteuse who killed herself, it wouldn't matter; but she had a strange presence.

'Part of it was the way those albums were produced: multi-tracking had just been invented, and boy, did they use it. I thought a lot of the productions were really overblown and horrible, but even in the big hit 'Close to You', the line 'All the birds tumble from the sky' - just the very sweetness of that, the pastel, chicks-and-puppies aspect, is undercut with a traumatic kind of thing.'

Red Kross's Steve McDonald agrees. 'Songs like 'Superstar' and 'Rainy Days and Mondays', they have a very melancholy way of hanging this message on you. She had a really warm voice, with an androgynous quality. She could sing lower than my brother Jeff: when we did 'Yesterday Once More', we had to mess around with the key, because she could sing lower than Jeff, and higher than Jeff. When I was a kid, it used to scare the shit out of me, the way she sang so low - it was like the Doors doing 'Riders on the Storm'.'

For McDonald, who was four or five years old at the time, the Carpenters were one of youth's guilty pleasures, to be hidden at all costs from his older brother. 'It was only later on that I appreciated them on more levels. I guess I relate to them because I grew up in the same area, and they put a band of siblings together and so did we - though I grew up 20 years after them, and our neighbourhood was completely decaying by the time I was aware of my surroundings. So I joined a punk band instead. But I suppose they were the image of the perfect Fifties tract-home nuclear family.'

The Carpenters had their first No 1 hit, 'Close to You', in June 1970, just as Janis Joplin, high priestess of rock 'n' roll excess, was entering the tail-spin that would result in her death from a heroin overdose. The comparison was aptly made between a decadent decade reined rudely in, and the resumption of all-American normalcy as represented by the duo's bland, schmaltzy harmonies and featherbed productions. Such, perhaps, was in Richard Nixon's mind when he proclaimed the Carpenters 'young America at its best', a judgement roundly ridiculed by Sonic Youth's drummer, Steve Shelley: 'I suppose the only rockers Nixon ever knew were Elvis, a prescription drug addict, and the Carpenters, who had their own skeletons in their closet.' An unfortunate choice of words, perhaps, but forgiveable in the circumstances.

The sticks-wielding Karen Carpenter was an obvious early inspiration for Babes in Toyland's drummer, Lori Barbero, who learnt the siblings' songs at her mother's knee: 'I knew all the words to the songs on the Close to You album by the time I was nine or 10.' Such Jesuitical exposure has not, however, completely indoctrinated her. 'It's not the typical kind of music I like,' she admits. 'I like strong, soulful vocals, and she wasn't either, she was kinda wimpy and whiney. To be honest, if the Carpenters were around today I don't think I'd ever listen to them.' Sadly, much the same could be said of the Babes' pedestrian version of 'Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft', though it was only their second choice. 'We had learnt 'Superstar', but Sonic Youth had also chosen that,' says Lori. 'So our next choice, naturally, was a song about making contact with space aliens.'

Sonic Youth had apparently long used the Carpenters' version of 'Superstar' to close their shows, even before they commemorated Karen in the song 'Tunic / Song for Karen' on their Goo album. 'We used to play this song at the end of our shows, when the house lights came up, sort of serenading the people as they went home,' explains Shelley. 'It's a great lyric, really funny, and kind of spooky: if you listen to it, it could really be about a strange obsession - you don't know if she's actually met this person she's singing about. It may be just a fantasy.'

Their version of the song, which Shelley claims was partly influenced by a Serge Gainsbourg CD may be the most sensitive Sonic Youth performance ever committed to disc, a ghostly whisper of yearning slowly sinking beneath subdued waves of guitar noise. It's a far cry indeed from the Carpenters' version, importing something of the lonely tragedy of Karen's death into its reading. With any luck, it will be successful, which would help alleviate another tragedy - that faced by its composer, the legendary pianist Leon Russell, currently suffering the ravages of brittle-bone disease. If ever a talent truly merited a tribute, his must be the longest overdue.

(Photographs omitted)