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Trust Us, This Is Real : Fourteen alternative-rock groups have recorded versions of their favorite Carpenters songs. : Is this a joke? Not to them. The dark side of the Carpenters' American Dream isn't joke material.

September 11, 1994|Paul Grein | Paul Grein is a Los Angeles free-lance writer who specializes in pop music. He interviewed the Carpenters for Calendar in 1981.

The Carpenters were called a lot of things in the '70s, but hip was never one of them. The brother and sister from Downey were known almost as much for their squeaky-clean image as for their poignant ballads.

But a lot of certifiably hip acts have been singing Karen and Richard's praises lately.

And now 14 alternative rock acts--from Sonic Youth to the Cranberries--have recorded an album in which they perform Carpenters hits in their own styles. "If I Were a Carpenter," which is set for release Tuesday on A&M Records, was conceived as a heartfelt yet irreverent tribute.

Alternative acts liking the Carpenters? The same Carpenters that the Rolling Stone Record Guide long dismissed as "bubbly and bland"?

That incongruity is what intrigued Matt Wallace, who has produced records by such acclaimed alternative acts as Faith No More, the Replacements and Paul Westerberg.

"That was the interesting rub about this project, taking very commercial, pop, melodic songs and marrying them with bands that don't tend to do very melodic songs," said Wallace, who served as executive producer on the album with music journalist David Konjoyan.

Konjoyan notes that, despite the obvious musical differences, the Carpenters have a lot in common with these alternative acts.

"In their own time, the Carpenters were probably as alternative as any alternative band is today," he said. "They were certainly taking their own path. I think anybody who bucks trends, anybody who does their own thing despite what's going on around them, earns respect for that."

Larry Hamby--vice president of artists and repertoire at A&M Records, which released all the Carpenters' records--agrees.

"I think Karen was sort of emblematic of an alternative type of soul," he said. "It's there in her story, her presence, her voice. There was always this sad, melancholy quality in her voice--even on the happiest, most up-tempo songs that she sang. And I think a lot of these alternative artists have picked up on that."

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Do these acts really like the Carpenters--or is this some kind of a sendup?

That's the first question people invariably ask when they hear about this album--which also includes performances by Babes in Toyland, Shonen Knife, Cracker, Sheryl Crow and Johnette Napolitano with Marc Moreland.

Richard Carpenter and executives at A&M acknowledge that they were concerned that the album might be "tongue in cheek" when Konjoyan and Wallace first presented the idea a year ago.

They needn't have worried. The artists' affection for the Carpenters seems genuine. There may be some nostalgia at play here, but the attraction isn't camp.

The second question people usually ask is more complex: How much of this fascination is due to the tragedy surrounding Karen Carpenter? The singer was just 32 when she died in 1983 after an eight-year battle with anorexia nervosa.

Even Konjoyan says, "I don't think we can extract the Carpenters' lives from their music and have it really mean the same to all these bands. I mean, there is a very tragic story behind their career, and I think that's added a lot of depth to what they're about."

Alternative acts seem to be especially intrigued by the disparity between the Carpenters' sugarcoated image and the darker reality of their lives. Some even see the Carpenters' story as a metaphor for the dark side of the American Dream--the underside of success, beauty and family ties.

"They're so American--they have the light and the dark," said Kim Gordon, bassist and singer for Sonic Youth, a leading underground band that performs "Superstar" on the album.

"I just find the whole family aspect fascinating," she added. "It's like the Beach Boys family. They're supposed to be the ideal American families--the success dream, and all that."

But underneath were problems and conflicts, as in any family--only magnified by the pressures of stardom.

Sonic Youth co-leader Thurston Moore added that those undertones of darkness come across in the Carpenters' music--and are part of what makes it so alluring.

"There's a certain sort of dark mystery to the music that we always found so potent," he said.

John Bettis, who teamed with Richard Carpenter to write such hits as "Goodbye to Love" and "Yesterday Once More," said that what Moore and others hear in the music was real.

"The dark side, the melancholia, was as real as they feel it was. They're responding to the emotional truth, not the image, which is what I always wanted."

W hen Karen Carpenter died on Feb. 4, 1983, many pop fans hadn't given the Carpenters much thought in years. The duo's last album, in 1981, and last TV special, in 1980, had both bombed.

Karen's death drew heavy coverage, in part because it was so unexpected and she was so young. But an album of previously unreleased material released later that year met with only modest success. When producer Dick Clark included a brief tribute to Karen on his American Music Awards program in January, 1984, it was like remembering someone from another era.

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