Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009

If I Were a Carpenter...

By Evan Rytlewski
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During the CD sales boom of the '90s, labels didn't need much of an excuse to release a tribute album, and although most of the decade's compilations were cheap cash-ins, a handful are true treasures. 1994's If I Were a Carpenter, which I found buried in a dollar bin in a Florida record store last month, remains a cherished relic from the era. It was an oddity from the start, assembling a slew of rainy-day alt-rockers to cover songs from one of the '70s sunniest hitmakers, but unlike the tributes to "School House Rock" and Saturday morning cartoons released around the time, this disc didn't play its premise for kitsch. The Cranberries turn "(They Long To Be) Close To You" into a Cranberries song; Cracker bum themselves out with an bleary cover of "Rainy Days And Mondays," and even alt-rock C-listers like American Music Club, Bettie Serveert and Johnette Napolitano turn out passionate, absolutely killer covers. The disc's real legacy, though, rests on Sonic Youth's bone-chilling version of "Superstar," newly infamous thanks its memorable placement in Juno.

Siding squarely with Ellen Page's chipper teen hipster, Juno contrasts the carefree spirit of today's youth with the dire earnestness of Generation X, as unflatteringly embodied by Jason Bateman's aging grunge rocker, the closest thing the film has to a villain. Sonic Youth's brilliantly pained take on "Superstar" is that character's anthem, a brooding, staid respite from the uncomfortably comfortable life Bateman ungratefully leads. It's a hell of song, and Page's title character is briefly captivated by it—until she realizes the absurdity of everything the song stands for. In the film's most earned climax, she tells off Bateman by denouncing a Sonic Youth CD: "It's just noise."

Pain sucks, Juno reminds us, so why would we want to wallow in it, especially when we can listen to the Moldy Peaches and talk on hamburger phones instead? I can't answer that question any more gracefully than Bateman's character could, but the If I Were a Carpenter compilation makes a fine case for "hurts so good" allure of pained, '90s alternative rock. I'd take this album over a twee-laden soundtrack any day.
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