Marshall Crenshaw

Nice guys finish first

Strongest album: Marshall Crenshaw
Must to avoid: Good Evening

It's tough being a critics' darling, getting rave reviews in every major publication yet never achieving the commercial success that's so clearly deserved. Such is the fate of a host of talents, not the least of which is Marshall Crenshaw. A nice boy from Detroit weaned on the classic pop of Motown and the Beatles (he played John in Beatlemania) and the classic overlooked pop of Big Star, he has written and performed a number of songs on his albums that stand up to any of the aforementioned. Unfortunately, he had the bad timing to execute his timeless guitar pop during the '80s, when overproduced synth-junk made him seem hopelessly out of date. Of course, the irony is that Crenshaw sounds fresh and timely today, while the Culture Club are the musical equivalent of an Atari 2600. He's as close as a modern-day Buddy Holly as you can get, with his spare, melodic sound instantly evoking the Crickets, and he writes standards just as good as the Man himself. Only they're not standards because they don't get played on the radio - the real day the music died was when sharp, intelligent pop-rock easily beloved by pop-rock lovers from 8 to 80 didn't get out to the people who would surely hum Crenshaw's tunes endlessly if they only heard them. Let's put it this way: if you like Buddy Holly, then do yourself a favor and get yourself aquainted with his only genuine heir (when's the last time you really heard anybody post-early Beatles out there who subbed as a dead ringer for Holly? Costello had the look, but not the sound, and he's mean and nasty, while Crenshaw's sweet and sensitive). And if you don't like Buddy Holly, then what are you doing on this page? What are you doing claiming to like rock'n'roll? Don't get me wrong, though: Crenshaw is no retro-revivalist cartoon. His songs are too good to get written off like that. He tackles modern relationships with sharp, knowing, and witty lyrics, plus he carefully pays attention to production values to bring out the full sparkle and sleek shine of those great tunes of his.

The Marshall Crenshaw page is the only one for this overlooked talent out there, but it's a doozy, with lots of articles and pictures of our hero.

Marshall Crenshaw (1982) *****

Crenshaw's first album is so perfect that it's almost too perfect, in that it makes the rest of his career seem disappointing. He scrubs the sound quality on his debut down clean and spare for a classic straightforward simplicity that's such a relief from more ornate and bombastic albums out there. This is his simplest, sparest, catchiest, most melodic, and Buddy Holly-ish music, and nearly every track is a winner. The songs aren't terribly complicated in terms of construction or chord progressions, which is what makes the songs work - do you realize just how hard it is to get simplicity right, without sounding simple? "Someday, Someway" possesses an unforgettable chorus, as do quite a few Crenshaw tunes. He unabashedly admits his love of "Girls" so sweetly and guilelessly I can't imagine any heterosexual female resisting his charm. He doesn't bother with "The Usual Thing", goes out looking for a "Cynical Girl" to go "Rocking Around In N.Y.C." It's a testament to his songcraft that the only cover, "Soldier Of Love", is easily the weakest track. Simply put, this is timeless, effortless pop that only someone who hates pop can't fail to love through and through.

Field Day (1983) ****1/2

This album caused a bit of consternation amongst Crenshaw's fans when it came out due to the heavy-handed production of Steve Lillywhite (U2). Today it's hard to hear what all the fuss was about; while Lillywhite's production doesn't sparkle like the debut's did, it doesn't mar the songs in any significant way, other than a slightly excessive booming drum sound. Overall the songs are slightly weaker than those on the debut, but nothing Crenshaw wrote previously was as majestically overwrought as "Whenever You're On My Mind", a shamelessly sentimental number that transcendently wrenches tears out its monstrous hooks. Once again, the weakest track is the lone cover, "What Time Is It?". Crenshaw stretches his boundaries by downshifting into the slow dance balladry of "Try" and "All I Know Right Now". "Our Town" and "Hold It" actually benefit from the booming drum sound, surging with a sinewy melodicism and energy. "Monday Morning Rock" is another fave of mine. Crenshaw's second best-album; the only real problem is that it's only marginally different from the debut, with only a few token advances musically. But since the debut was so perfect, I do not in the least mind a repeat.

Downtown (1985) ****

Crenshaw changes his sound somewhat for this release, enlisting T-Bone Burnett as the producer and veering off into a more country/rockabilly direction. Since I like country and rockabilly decidely less than pure guitar pop, I don't listen to this as much as the first two releases, but it's just as good in its own right. At times this sounds like the type of music that Dwight Yoakam would proffer a few years later, especially on "Yvonne" and "Little Wild One (No.5)". His balladic skills keep getting better, which makes the album closer, "Lesson Number One", the highlight. Mitch Easter produced one track, "Blues Is King", a transcendent, driving number, and it's an instantly notable change of pace, as Easter's production is much more lush and pop than Burnett's drier approach. "Terrifying Love" and "The Distance Between" are also highlights. Once again, the cover of "I'm Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)" is one of the weaker tracks.

Mary Jean & 9 Others (1987) ***1/2

Crenshaw's first real disappointment, this is a really good album that suffers in comparison to the previous three because it's only good - not great. A major flaw is that the songs go on too long, which only heightens the contrast between the draggy bloat here and the precise consciscion of the debut. Nevertheless, "Calling Out For Love (At Crying Time)" is another stellar entry in Crenshaw's canon, "Wild Abandon" rocks, and "A Hundred Dollars" invites you out on the town. The cover of Peter Case's "Steel Strings", needless to say, is one of the weaker tracks, and the only country song here; Crenshaw mainly returns to the pop-rock of his first two albums. The ballad, "They Will Never Know", moans about how the public ignores him, and is one of the stronger tunes, and that's not a good sign. Somebody lift this boy's spirits, please, before he gets off track!

Good Evening (1989) **1/2

Well, he did get off track, unfortunately. If you've read my reviews so far you'll notice a pattern: Crenshaw's covers aren't a match for his originals. Sad to say, but 5 of these 10 songs are covers. I can deal with John Hiatt and Richard Thompson and the Isley Brothers, and I absolutely adore the cover of Bobby Fuller's "Let Her Dance", but song doctor Diane Warren's "Some Hearts" is unforgivable. The best original is the miserably melancholy ballad, "She Hates To Go Home". Crenshaw only wrote two of the songs on this album all by himself, without the aid of a co-writer. Talk about a severe writing drought! The problem Crenshaw has is perplexing, since his primary strength is as a songwriter; the strength and ease of his earlier songs made one believe that he'd never run out of good ones. I guess he did, though. But how?!?

Life's Too Short (1991)
Live My Truck Is My Home (1994)
Miracle Of Science (1996)

The above are Crenshaw's '90s albums, none of which I own. The 1994 release is exactly what it bills itself as - a live album, with several covers. The two studio albums are supposedly substantial improvements over the debacle of Good Evening; Miracle contains a cover of Grant Hart's (ex-Husker Du) "2541". I'm on the lookout for these albums at a reasonable price, but you know I've never seen a Marshall Crenshaw album in the used bins, which is probably due to the fact that a) no one buys his records, and b)those who do buy his records don't get rid of them.

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Reader Comments

Mitchell Crenshaw, your style. I'm a big fan of the ny dolls, and also Marshall Crenshaw, who's my brother. I think your comments on both are right on.

I leave the world behind....