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November 16, 1994

Oddball Tribute

CarpenterVarious Artists, If I Were a Carpenter (A & M Records 1994) -- It's now 25 years since the Carpenters signed with Herb Alpert at A & M Records, and more than a decade since the untimely death of Karen Carpenter from anorexia nervosa in 1983. However, the Carpenters' music continues to influence today's grunge/rock/pop acts (whether they want to admit it or not).

If I Were a Carpenter, a project conceived by journalist Dave Konjoyan and producer Matt Wallace (who has worked with The Replacements, Faith No More, John Hiatt, and Paul Westerberg) is more than just a tribute album -- on the best cuts, the artists explore the subtle nuances in these songs and reveal some of the pain in the Carpenters' music.

CarptentersNow, let's not kid ourselves. Neither Karen nor Richard (brother and sister) were Shakespeare, and this stuff isn't MacBeth. However, beneath the bubbly, poppish face presented by their media organization lay a tension and unease in the Carpenters' music.

In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1974 (when the Carpenters were still living at home with their parents, despite their massive international success), Richard and Karen displayed ill-ease with their organization; Richard complained about their "wholesome halo" and his difficulties with Burt Bacharach (who wrote "Close to You," one of their biggest hits), while Karen quickly embroidered the story to defuse any implications of thanklessness.

Still, when a pop singer can admit to "Walking around/Feeling like a lonely clown" (from "Rainy Days and Mondays"), there's something deeper going on. Karen was the one who internalized everything (to the point that it eventually destroyed her), so her tendency to homogenize their image isn't surprising. The Carpenters may have disliked their perfect pop image, but they helped to perpetuate it; for example, their entire show was scripted, including all of the between-song comments (which were repeated verbatim night after night).

Karen CarpenterTo commemorate the Carpenters' recording career, A & M Records gathered a collection of acts that run the gamut of current genres. While the Cranberries and Grant Lee Buffalo deliver fairly straight versions of "Close to You" and "We've Only Just Begun," respectively, American Music Club ("Good-bye to Love") and Cracker ("Rainy Days and Mondays") deliver difficult, grunge-influenced versions (and let me add this about singer David Lowery of Cracker -- his voice is flat, and he just can't sing).

The highlights come when the artists reinterpret these songs. For example, Dishwalla's dance/rock version of "It's Going to Take Some Time" is a standout, and Johnette Napolitano (late of Concrete Blonde) gives an inspired reading of "Hurting Each Other."

On the other hand, some tracks are simply embarrassing. Thus, Japanese girl group Shonen Knife's bizarre cover of "Top of the World" bites, and Babe's in Toyland's reading of "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" shows that, by the end of the line, the Carpenters' songwriting skills were tapped out.

There's something touching about the Karen Carpenter story. Blessed with an angelic voice and total success, she self-destructed on her own image and fears. Though the artwork for If I Were a Carpenter is sophomoric, the music highlights the duo's perfect pop sentiments. Buy it to hear the past and the present.

J.J. CaleJ.J. Cale, Closer to You (Virgin 1994) -- Closer to You, J.J. Cale's 11th album, is a real return to form. J.J., who began his career in Oklahoma playing in beerhalls alongside his friend and colleague, Leon Russell, pioneered what he calls the "Tulsa sound," a subdued mix of blues, rock and country. Though overlooked by the pop mainstream, Closer to You captures this spare, laid-back sound at its best.

The 54-year-old Cale, who now lives in San Diego, has been making albums since 1972, when he debuted with Naturally. Prior to Naturally, Cale knocked around studios for years as an engineer and also wrote such rock stalwarts as "After Midnight" (later covered by Eric Clapton) and "Call Me the Breeze" (which later became a big hit for Lynryd Skynyrd).

After decades of studio work, Cale burned out on the business, and took a hiatus lasting several years in the 80s. He returned in 1989 with Travelog (which got impressive reviews) and last year's fine Number 10.

For my money, Cale's two best albums are No. 5 (1979), which featured great instrumentation and innovative recording techniques, and Grasshopper (1982), which is the closest Cale has come to a concept album. Closer to You captures the best elements of these albums, while also building on Cale's distinctive guitar work and laid-back rock/shuffle sound.

TravelogUnlike Travelog, which was recorded over a period of many years, the 12 songs on Closer to You were recorded in a matter of days. Says Cale, "I custom ordered a Martin acoustic guitar. A good guitar will kind of inspire you. I wrote eight songs on one day and cut them all as demos at a friend's house. Then I rented Capitol Studios in Hollywood and recorded the album in two days, with all the vocals cut live. It sounded real good, so I brought the stuff home and started mudding those tunes up, recorded three or four more, and did some overdubs."

Half the tracks on Closer to You are solo numbers, in which Cale provides all of the guitars, vocals, and keyboards. For the other tracks, Cale assembled a terrific band (including long-time sideman, Christine Lakeland) to produce a chugging, rock-solid sound.

With songs like "Hard Love" and "Devil's Nurse," Cale's Oklahoma roots are never far away. Though his songs often have a rollicking, playful feel, there's an undercurrent of rawboned tension in many of them. When Cale and his band really get down on songs like "Long Way Home" and "Steve's Song," it's clear that Cale is an unknown treasure.

With occasional strings, horn section, and vibraphone, Closer to You shows that Cale has come a long way from beer joints in Oklahoma. Closer to You finds Cale in peak form; an insightful, rye songwriter who uses ordinary words to paint extraordinary portraits of a dusky American landscape. J.J.'s back; get acquainted with him.

-- Randy Krbechek

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