According to lead singer J.R. Richards, Santa Barbara-based Dishwalla wouldn't be where it is today without the inspiration of a certain poofy-haired pianist and his dead sister--otherwise known as Richard and Karen Carpenter.

"I'm honest to God a real Carpenters fan," Richards vows. "I grew up listening to my parents' Carpenters stuff over and over again. I mean, I didn't really have a choice, but I still know all the words by heart."

Heretofore, the ability to recite Paul Williams's lyrics to "Rainy Days and Mondays" wasn't a particularly marketable skill. But Richards and the rest of Dishwalla--bassist Scot Alexander, guitarist Rodney Browning and drummer George Pendergast--chose an auspicious time to make their Carpenters jones public. Shortly after inking a contract with A&M Records (but before they recorded their debut disc, Pet Your Friends), the musicians saw an article in the Los Angeles Times about a Carpenters tribute project. Richards wanted to take part in the platter for two reasons: his deep and profound admiration for Richard and Karen and the participation of Matt Wallace, who's produced recordings for Paul Westerberg and the Replacements.

Because Dishwalla was a relative unknown at that point, Wallace hadn't sought out the group. So in an effort to get his attention, the bandmates cut an eight-track version of the Carpenters' "Close to You" and rushed it off to him. Wallace knew the track wouldn't work for the compilation: The disc was already finished--and besides, the Cranberries had just finished cutting a version of the same song. Nevertheless, he was so impressed by their ditty that he held up release of the project (dubbed If I Were a Carpenter) until Dishwalla's run-through of "It's Gonna Take Some Time" could be included on it.

Dishwalla was in good company: Among the fellow contributors on Carpenter were Sonic Youth, Babes in Toyland and Cracker. The combination resulted in strong reviews and even stronger sales. "We were sort of surprised by the success of the album," Richards admits, "but we probably shouldn't have been. Everyone has rediscovered the Carpenters. It's kind of like a big fad."

Furthermore, Richards continues, "After Sonic Youth's, ours was the next single to be released. It was great but sort of strange--we were a band that didn't even have an album out, and here we were being played alongside someone like Sonic Youth. What can you say?

"We had begun recording Pet Your Friends when the song was getting a lot of airplay, and we'd be driving back and forth to the studio and hear ourselves on the radio, like, four or five times a day."

Fortunately, Pet lives up to the promise of "It's Gonna Take Some Time." Not that it's all that original: Framed by Browning's fuzzy guitar playing and big hooks, the music simultaneously recalls everything from the more pop-oriented efforts of Soundgarden and Sunny Day Real Estate to modern-day U2. Richards's voice is often reminiscent of U2's Bono but without the latter's sappy, overblown delivery.

In short, Dishwalla appears primed for a mainstream breakthrough. Richards balks at this suggestion ("Too many negative connotations," he says) in part because he fears that commercial comparisons will deflect attention from the combo's musicianship and songwriting, where he feels it belongs. "I try to write meaningful lyrics," he explains. "Songs about alcoholism, like `Haze,' and about stereotypical views of religion, like `Counting Blue Cars,' are important for me to write, but we don't want to get too serious or give the impression that we're a political band. We're not. We always throw in a twist to keep it interesting." The aforementioned "Counting Blue Cars" is an example: On it, Richards sings, "Tell me all your thoughts on God/I'd really like to meet her."

The fun doesn't end there. Pet also features "Charlie Brown's Parents," an ode to the couple's indecipherable squawk, and "Miss Emma Peel," which Richards notes is "for the character on The Avengers television series, who I've had a crush on since I was eight. Man, she's such a badass. I've been waiting to get that one off my chest for a long time."

Thus far, audiences seem to be responding to Dishwalla's dish. "We've been playing to sold-out venues since we started this tour," Richards points out. "Of course, that's because we were opening for Better Than Ezra when `Good' had just become a hit. But we're getting there, and people still remember us from the Carpenters thing, too. And I think the radio stations are being friendly to us with the new album because they've heard the name before."

And if this goodwill dries up? "Well," Richards says, "I guess we can always go back to the studio and throw out another Carpenters tune."

Dishwalla, with Josh Clayton-Felt. 8:30 p.m. Monday, January 15, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $5.25, 447-0095.


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