Detroit-born singer/guitarist Crenshaw spent some time in a road company of Beatlemania before moving (with his drummer brother Robert) to New York, where his own songs became local new wave faves in the early ’80s. Although he was seen as a latter-day Buddy Holly at the outset (a comparison renewed when he actually portrayed Buddy onscreen in 1987’s La Bamba), Crenshaw soon proved too talented and original to be anyone but himself.
Following the release of an independent 12-inch with a major-label recording contract, Crenshaw made a debut album of sparkling, tuneful gems that are instantly memorable and remain every bit as enjoyable decades later. Clean and crisp, free of frills and pretense, Marshall Crenshaw‘s scrubbed pop style makes the record sound like a test of studio audio quality. Notwithstanding the Holly comparisons, songs like “Someday, Someway,” “She Can’t Dance,” “Cynical Girl” and “Brand New Lover” make it clear that Crenshaw is an enormously talented original.
Field Day, rather overproduced by Steve Lillywhite, has a walloping drum sound, lots of sonic holes and a few of Crenshaw’s best songs. Although not an artistic success in toto, joyous numbers like “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” “All I Know Right Now” and “Our Town” mine Crenshaw’s shuffle-pop resources effectively. Mindful of the criticism Field Day engendered, “Our Town” and two other tracks from it were given a simplifying remix by John Luongo, attached to a live oldie (“Little Sister”) and issued as an impressive second-chance 12-inch in the UK.
With production assistance by T-Bone Burnett and a large bunch of savvy sidemen in place of his usual band, Crenshaw filled Downtown with extraordinarily memorable and intelligent pop songs in a number of musical veins. Easily the finest, most mature of his first three albums, Downtown swings with easy confidence through heartbreakers (“The Distance Between,” “Like a Vague Memory”), lovemakers (“Yvonne,” “Terrifying Love”), country laments and blues struts. It also features an incisive reading of Ben Vaughn’s hauntingly wistful “I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee).” (The Distance Between 12-inch pairs two Downtown tracks with two songs from the first LP.)
Continuing on his onward and upward path, Crenshaw returned to the small-combo format, cutting the brilliant, often beautiful Mary Jean with two sidemen — his brother Robert and longtime Joe Jackson bassist Graham Maby. Don Dixon’s simple but full production sparkles, with just the right echo on the snare and spring in the strings. Even when shockingly manic guitar solos erupt in “‘Til That Moment” and “This Street,” they work for the songs, not against them. Guest crooners (including Tom Teeley and Marti Jones) pitch in to enrich winsome, well-crafted tunes — “Wild Abandon”; “Mary Jean”; a thoughtfully reflective Crenshaw/Dixon composition, “Calling Out for Love (At Crying Time)”; Peter Case’s atmospheric (and metaphoric) ode to the guitar, “Steel Strings” — with exquisite harmonies that wordlessly convey both the ecstasy and misery of romance.
The frustration and anxiety caused by long-term commercial neglect haunts the lightweight Good Evening, a disappointing creative sidestep that smacks of compromise and a lack of inspiration (not to mention over-use of whiny slide guitar). Other than well-chosen and delightfully performed songs by Richard Thompson (“Valerie”), Bobby Fuller (“Let Her Dance”), John Hiatt (“Someplace Where Love Can’t Find Me”) and the Isley Brothers (“Live It Up”), the pickings are slim: two so-so Crenshaw songs, three fair collaborations and an unwelcome contribution by the dreaded Diane Warren.
Produced by Ed Stasium to a bright, rocky consistency, with firm instrumental underpinning by bassist Fernando Saunders and drummer Kenny Aronoff, Life’s Too Short is another good ‘un. Shedding the commercial anxiety that ruined Good Evening, Crenshaw comes across with such enchanting originals as “Better Back Off,” “Don’t Disappear Now” (both co-written with Tom Teeley), the jazzy and lighthearted “Fantastic Planet of Love” and the gorgeous “Somewhere Down the Line.” Nearly every cut goes on a bit longer than necessary (no track’s less than four minutes, which used to be his upper limit), but the songs — including one by Chris Knox of the Tall Dwarfs — are strong enough not to sound attenuated.
He didn’t soon return to the studio, but Crenshaw — whose c.v. already included outside record production (a 1989 album for Nashville’s rocking Thieves), journalism and the compilation and annotation of a historical anthology called Hillbilly Music…Thank God!) — did edit Hollywood Rock (1994), a useful reference book about music movies. …My Truck Is My Home is a compendium of not-overly-clean-sounding concert recordings made around the country and Belgium between 1982 and 1994. That nearly half the tunes are covers — including ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and the MC5’s “Tonight,” both of which receive insightful renditions, and the instrumental “Twine Time,” which ties organist Glen Burtnick up in a stinging Crenshaw guitar solo — limits the reflection of the artist’s own repertoire, but that doesn’t present a problem. Rather than grandstanding, the point of this eye- opening, ear-pleasing collection seems to be good songs sung with thought, care and enthusiasm.
Crenshaw got into the charts in 1995 via the Gin Blossoms’ “Til I Hear It From You,” which he co-wrote. The following summer, Miracle of Science became his first new studio album in five years.
The desolate nighttime cover photo of What’s in the Bag? sends a darker message than the songs’ rueful observations, but not much. Haunted a bit by the past, Crenshaw starts the programme off on a reflective, doubtful note, far from home, missing his loved one and asking “Will We Ever?” (…love again). The song floats on a cushion of vibraphone and pedal steel, Crenshaw giving nothing away about his future expectations, which go unresolved as the song fades out. From there, he sadly recalls “Where Home Used to Be” and observes that “The Spell Is Broken.” But “Long and Complicated” and “Alone in a Room” glory in love, making it seem as if all is right in the Crenshaw world. With typical stylistic aplomb, he works in a pair of surprising covers (Prince’s “Take Me With U” and Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be With You”), bringing the funk to him as crystalline pop (with wailing guitar) rather than attempt to copy the original songs. Keeping the rrangements as diverse as the spare simplicity allows, Crenshaw lets his melodic light shine, using the honesty of his voice to universalize what sound like pretty personal experiences.