Under Cover: Sonic Youth Pay Loving Tribute to the Carpenters
In the first part of the ’90s, tribute albums were all the rage. It seemed like every other day there was a new record full of both big- and small-name bands tipping their collective hats to an artist from the past. From Neil Young to Roky Erickson, and seemingly everyone in between, the market was flooded with tributes.
Among the more curious was 1994’s ‘If I Were a Carpenter,’ which paid homage to the darlings of ’70s soft-pop AM gold, the Carpenters. But the story of brother-and-sister-duo Richard and Karen Carpenter goes deeper than their long string of hits reveals. Way deeper.
They made beautiful records that weren’t just the temporary pop-radio fare that they were often dismissed as. They made songs and records of a far more lasting quality. That, in part, is what ‘If I Were a Carpenter’ set out to prove. (Well, that and a certain bit of “it’s so uncool, it’s cool” hipster aesthetic mixed in.)
A promotional campaign at the time proclaimed “The Carpenters Are Cool!” And while there are certainly many forgettable moments on the album (Dishwalla?), there are many stellar moments too, including Redd Kross’ transformation of ‘Yesterday Once More‘ into a shining power pop anthem and Grant Lee Buffalo’s sincere reading of one of the Carpenters’ best songs, ‘We’ve Only Just Begun.’
And there’s Sonic Youth‘s take on ‘Superstar,’ which they melt down to an eerie glow. Thurston Moore takes the lead here, and delivers the song in a wash of fragile despair. He doesn’t quite sing the lines as the rest of the band stays relatively faithful to the song’s original arrangement.
But because this is Sonic Youth, the basic track is augmented by distortion and synthesizer swirls along the way, ultimately making it sound more like a curio than a true tribute. But we assume their hearts were in the right place. After all, the band has penned songs about the Carpenters before.
Karen’s voice was a thing of natural beauty, and her version of this song — written by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett — features one of her greatest performances. You can feel her heart breaking as she faultlessly sings every note.
The Carpenters hit No. 2 with ‘Superstar’ in 1971, but the song had already had a life out of the spotlight with versions by Rita Coolidge, Cher, Vicki Carr and Delaney & Bonnie, who recorded the original version in 1970. Even Bette Midler and Peggy Lee took stabs at it, but it’s the Carpenters cut that everyone knows, loves and pays tribute to.