Detroit’s Marshall Crenshaw doesn’t belong in a conversation of most important musicians of his generation, but he’s a talented craftsman, whose deft guitar pop is likeable and accessible. He’s often compared with Buddy Holly, and his 1982 debut album certainly feels like Holly updated for new wave. Crenshaw is also compared with Elvis Costello, who also earned Holly comparisons early in his career, but Crenshaw’s music is as sweet as Costello’s is bitter.
Crenshaw has never entered the mainstream, although his self-titled debut sometimes pops up in best album of the 1980s lists. But that’s no reflection on his music which is full of hooks and succinct. His 1982 self-titled debut and his compilation This Is Easy are both terrific, and well worth hearing for fans of intelligent guitar pop.
Marshall Crenshaw Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Marshall Crenshaw
Punk and new wave was only one way of taking rock back to basics. Marshall Crenshaw took an altogether different approach, stripping back to three chord songs about girls, delivered by a tight three piece and earning comparisons to Buddy Holly. His 1982 debut features his brother Robert on drums, while Crenshaw handles all the guitar parts. The simplified arrangements of these songs are invigorating; the songs are snappy and intelligent, and even though the production places the album in the early 1980s, these melodies could have easily come from an earlier era. Crenshaw’s persona is so likeable that he can get away with a song simply about cruising around checking out girls, and make it innocent and laudable rather than seedy and leering. In a just world, half of these songs would be radio staples, and that these accessible songs didn’t make Crenshaw a superstar is almost unfathomable.
The lack of success of this album is magnified by the strong triple punch at the beginning; ‘There She Goes Again’, the power pop standard ‘Someday, Someway’ and the exuberant ‘Girls…’ (“You know I don’t want to be impolite/But I need someone to hold beside me tonight”) are some superlative examples of eighties pop. ‘Mary Anne’ builds a great song out of three chords and a minimalist melody, while ‘Cynical Girl’ is another winner. The other half of the record isn’t quite as strong, especially the cover of the ubiquitous ‘Soldier Of Love’, stopping this album some distance from perfection.
But any fan of intelligent guitar pop will cherish songs like ‘Someday, Someway’ and ‘Mary Anne’, and play this refreshingly sincere album often.
Crenshaw’s sophomore effort was recorded with producer of the moment Steve Lillywhite, also working with U2 at the time, and he’s often criticised for smothering Crenshaw in overproduction. Whether that’s the case or not – sometimes the fuller sound certainly works in the record’s favour – there’s a marked shift in Crenshaw’s writing. The songs on Field Day are generally less wide-eyed, innocent and 1950s’ derived than those on the debut, and it lacks that album’s effortless vitality. Of course, in hindsight this change was necessary for Crenshaw – there’s no way he could be taken seriously if he kept on making 1950s’ homages, and it’s clear that his song-craft has developed and this is a more complex set of songs. Crenshaw is again joined by the same rhythm section, although there’s little of a three piece feel about the arrangements here, and the record feels more like lush power-pop.
The record opens with its best song, the huge, hooky ‘Whenever You’re On My Mind’, where the gulp of melody at the start of each verse is intoxicating. There’s plenty of solid power-pop like ‘All I Know Right Now’ and the stacked vocals and ringing arpeggios of ‘One More Reason To Cry’. The full production really works for the closing ‘Hold It’, which practically drowns in a luscious wave of warm backing vocals and guitar arpeggios. Like the debut, the worst song is the sole cover, the stilted ‘What Time Is It?’, although Crenshaw’s crooning vocal in the verses is surprisingly effective.
Field Day is not as effortless and infectious as Crenshaw’s debut, but it’s a solid sophomore effort that deserved a far better fate than deposing Crenshaw from promising commercial force to cult favourite.
Again, Crenshaw’s producer shapes his sound for his album significantly – on Downtown he’s produced by T-Bone Burnett who pushes the album in a country direction.
The outstanding song is the one that’s not produced by T-Bone Burnett – ‘Blues Is King’ is produced by Crenshaw and Mitch Easter, and it’s punchier and more immediate than the rest of the album. I’m not sure that Downtown is significantly weaker than its predecessors, but it’s certainly more subtle and I prefer my Crenshaw bright and poppy. Songs like ‘Lesson Number One’ and ‘Distance Between’ are strong, but ‘Blues Is King’ and upbeat opener ‘Little Wild One’ are the songs that I remember from Downtown.
Downtown is a solid effort from a pop artisan, but outside of ‘Blues Is King’, I don’t return to it often.
This Is Easy: The Best Of Marshall Crenshaw
Marshall Crenshaw’s a good candidate for a compilation, since he’s hooky and succinct, yet inexplicably not all over the radio. If the early material on this album still sounds freshest and most exciting, Crenshaw’s ability to create memorable hooks didn’t decline if the songs chosen here are anything to go by. There’s also a clear stylistic shift between each album, with the debut featuring his unabashedly poppy, energetic three piece, the sophomore Field Day with a bigger rock sound helmed by Steve Lillywhite, a foray into country on his T-Bone Burnett-produced third album Downtown and so forth. It’s also nicely packaged with a commentary from Crenshaw on each song (defending Lillywhite’s production: “Field Day is an honest, interesting, and cool record. With a really terrible picture on the front cover. D’oh.”).
The four selections from the debut still sound fresh and exciting and the omission of strong tracks like ‘Girls…’ is only proof of how strong the set is. The 4-track demo ‘You’re My Favourite Waste Of Time’, featuring plastic maracas, which originally surfaced as the b-side of ‘Someday, Someway’ is easily a highlight. The melancholy ‘Blues Is King’ hits on an inventive, original melody, while ‘Calling Out For Love (At Crying Time)’ also utilises the country music form to good effect. Later tracks like ‘Starless Summer Sky’ and ‘Someplace Where Love Can’t Find Me’ maintain the standard of quality; even if they don’t sound as effortless as his early work, they’re well crafted all the same.
Simply, This Is Easy is a collection of great guitar pop, performed with musical deftness and sweetness, and if you want to hear music that’s unabashedly hooky yet hasn’t been played to death on radio, here’s your chance to hear 22 great underexposed songs all in one package.
Cincinnati Babyhead says:
I came to Marshall via Robert Gordon who recorded ‘Someday Someway’. This is a really good record. Just listened to it the other day and it’s a favorite for a lot of the reasons you mentioned. As far as why he didn’t catch on more is a question I don’t even wonder about any more. It applies to the majority of the music I listen too. Good piece and nice that you are giving Marsh some ink.
Ten Favourite Marshall Crenshaw Songs
You’re My Favourite Waste Of Time
Whenever You’re On My Mind
Blues Is King
There She Goes Again
Starless Summer Sky