Close to Her

These rock acts chose well when they covered the Carpetners -- even Karen likes it

Certainly much will be said beginning this coming Tuesday when If I Were a Carpenter hits record stores. The release is a collection of songs by the Carpenters, Karen and Richard, as performed by some of today's hottest and coolest alternative rock acts, including Sonic Youth, Redd Kross, Cracker, and Bettie Serveert. Everyone should have something to say about that.

But as per usual New Times has gone that extra mile, or in this case that extra million miles, and secured an exclusive interview with the queen of somber pop herself, Ms. Karen Carpenter, who, along with us, heard an advance cassette of If I Were a Carpenter. Here then, in her own words, Karen Carpenter:

New Times: Overall, what do you think of the new album?
Karen Carpenter: I was shocked! I mean, I didn't know what to expect, I guess, so I expected the worst -- that these new young groups would take our songs and, like, deconstruct them and puke -- excuse me -- I mean, um, regur...that they would come out in a way unrecognizable as the originals. When I heard how faithful the versions are I was just flattered to high heaven.

NT: I agree that these are fairly faithful renderings, which raises the question of why. People can just go buy the old Carpenters stuff, right?

KC: Yes they can! And, for Richard's sake, I hope people do. But seriously, Carpenters records still sell quite well in Japan and Europe. I think that partly explains why A&M -- the label Richard and I signed to 25 years ago -- decided to release this.

NT: To exploit your name and catalogue, right?
KC: No, not at all. I wouldn't put it that way. No, no, no. Like I said, it's an honor and a wonderful way to recognize the 25th anniversary of our first popular success. They're even putting out a deluxe box set of these songs on seven-inch 45s.

NT: Cool. So what's your favorite track on the new record?
KC: That's a toughie. You know, I'm a big Sonic Youth fan. That might seem strange, but they did a song on their album Goo, "Tunic (Song for Karen)," that brought tears to my eyes. In some ways I can't think of a group more different from what the Carpenters did, but listen to "Superstar," which was written by Leon Russell, in case you didn't know that. The utter restraint of the vocals, the singer almost swallows the words, and the instrumental touches, so fuzzy yet warm. And Grant Lee Buffalo sounds just like us on "We've Only Just Begun." Very sweet.

NT: Getting back to the Sonic Youth track, there's a crafty use of dissonance, distortion I guess, even though they're working within standard scales and using traditional progressions, which they normally avoid, and other unusual touches that reflect the fact that Thurston and company, not untypically, seem to understand and appreciate the Carpenters on a higher level, that they did, in fact, deconstruct the song and then rebuild it in their own image without losing any of its essence. They seem to know going in what your group was all about, the layers of sound, the constructing of recorded pieces of music that worked in many dimensions.

KC: What's that about dementia? I'm sorry, I wasn't listening.
NT: Never mind. It is a great record, but there are a few cuts I thought could've been better. Don't you think "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" by Babes in Toyland lacks balls?

KC: You're asking the wrong person. It's a bit of a mess, I guess. Those women don't sing all that well, but their band really rocks live!

NT: Sure they do. I just think it's kind of weird that a lot of the vocal work here is less than stellar. You certainly had pitch and range, you were always on-key. If nothing else.

KC: Well, I worked with Richard in a few bands before Herb [Alpert, A&M cofounder] discovered us. I didn't even sing in our first group, this little jazz trio, I only played drums. That was after our family moved to California, when Richard and I were hanging out with the U-Cal crowd. We won a contest that let us record two albums for RCA, but they didn't release them. Said they were too "soft." Yeah, right. We knew in our hearts that people like nice music performed well. We never claimed to be any kind of rock and rollers. I'm from Connecticut, for chrissakes. Whoops. Sorry, J., didn't see you standing there.

NT: Ms. Carpenter? Karen? Karen? Are you there?
KC: I have to learn to watch my mouth. Sometimes stuff just comes out. You say one little thing around here and you don't know who you might offend.

NT: You were talking about the singing on the new album, how a few of the songs are comparatively sloppy --

KC: Live with it! No one ever said Mark Eitzel could sing, but you have to admire American Music Club, and you have to like what they've done with "Goodbye to Love." So what if the guy has the vocal range of a brick? You can hear the sincerity, the emotion, and that's a very emotional song. And he pulls it off with such subtlety, you know? It's all about feeling.

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