Various Artists: If I Were A Carpenter (1994)

I have a pretty complicated relationship with this album.  As I discuss in my recently-published book (yeah, I'm gonna keep plugging that baby, sorry), I was a child of the '70s, growing up in a household with no rock albums but plenty of Carpenters, a band which, once I stumbled into my early discovery of rock music, I immediately dismissed as horrific schlock for parents.  So even listening to Carpenters songs covered by some great alt.rock heroes of the '90s runs the risk of still sounding like horrific schlock, only with more distortion.  Yet somehow this compilation (mostly) avoids that hazard.

By the mid-'90s, tribute albums glutted the market.  As assessed elsewhere, they were usually a mixed bag.  You'd often get a few treats from favorite artists (or artists you didn't otherwise much care for), where they'd creatively alter the source material, or where you had such love for the original that any decently-performed cover was still going to be enjoyable; but more often, the albums would be padded out with contributions by bands whose own material you'd never care to hear, doing by-the-book covers that added nothing to the originals.

If I Were A Carpenter manages a better hit-to-miss ratio than most tribute albums of the era, owing both to some respectable contributors and a willingness to tweak the source material.  The stand-out, without question, is Sonic Youth's take on "Superstar," which both sounds fantastic, while truly nailing the hint of stalker obsession within the lyrics.  It's not just a fun cover, it's one of Sonic Youth's finest moments, period.

Shonen Knife characteristically take the already chirpy "Top Of The World" and turn it into a fun power pop tune, Shonen Knife's at-times cloying cuteness working well in this context.  Bettie Serveert turn "For All We Know" into a downbeat grunge ballad; Johnette Napolitano (of Concrete Blonde) goes with a boomy production to make "Hurting Each Other" come across like a slow-burning pop-glam anthem; Redd Kross go all in with the bubblegum pop underlying "Yesterday Once More"; Babes in Toyland give an unusually restrained post-punk performance of the already weird Klaatu cover "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft"; and Matthew Sweet pretty much leaves "Let Me Be The One" alone while making it a credible pop tune just by virtue of being Matthew Sweet.

A few other tracks are ok but a bit too tethered to a mainstream grunge vibe (i.e. Dishwalla), while the balance are just too faithful to the originals to avoid their baggage -- if you like the Carpenters, you're going to be fine with the Sheryl Crow and Cranberries versions, but if you don't, these won't change your mind.

Here's Sonic Youth's "Superstar" video:
...and Shonen Knife with "Top of the World":
...and Redd Kross's video for "Yesterday Once More":

Here's an audio rip of Johnette Napolitano: