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Another of my “Black X” titles that indicates a $1US purchase at Musik Hut, I first heard Marshall Crenshaw via the same tapes that introduced me to the video for “Oliver’s Army“, though the song I saw a video for was “Whenever You’re on My Mind”, from Crenshaw’s follow-up to this album, Field Day. I knew the song wasn’t on here, but figured for $1 I’d live, and figured I knew “There She Goes Again” and could justify the purchase with that. It was an unusual choice: the “Whenever” video cropped up a few times in those tapes, and the first few times did nothing for me. At some point though, it suddenly clicked and ran through my mind pretty regularly. So, seeing this at that price (being a non-major classic rock title, it also ensured it was probably in really solid condition, which it is), I figured–why not?
“There She Goes Again” was not, as it happened, the song I was thinking of¹ and this was apparent as soon as I heard it for the first time. Marshall’s brother Robert lays down a steady rock beat and Chris Donato puts in a somewhat dryly produced thickly-picked bassline, while Marshall himself drops a clean, light melody on guitar. His tone is bright and clear, the sound largely simple, but the actual playing a bit more complicated than it suggests. It’s reminiscent of the sounds that would soon permeate independent rock, in the power-pop sectors: ringing and melodic, finger-picked and gaining its impact from the energy used to play. The song as a whole is reminiscent of early rock like Buddy Holly (Crenshaw’s voice carries some similar phrasings, in fact), and feels lean and mean, the simple trio set-up very apparent, but the production keeping even that stripped of frills. Crenshaw’s vocals have a head-shake to them as he sings, “How I lost her/I’m not sure I know but/It makes no difference now I try/I get that feeling when she drives on by/And there she goes again with another guy.” His brother and Donato throw their voices in to strengthen the beginning of many of the lines in harmony, as well as the chorus, which sweetens Marshall’s lead, which is less openly sad than it is self-defeated.
Having never heard it before I bought this record, I never would have guessed that “Someday, Someway” was Crenshaw’s biggest single, but apparently it was. It’s not that the song seems like a surprising single, or a surprising hit, just that it failed to permeate with any apparent longevity. A catchy riff, some handclaps, “ooh”s from the boys in back, and a chorus that insinuates itself readily. The “Ah oh ahaw” that fits into the chorus is even more reminiscent of the vocalizations of Buddy Holly, but Marshall’s vocals are more sweet and spry in the whole track than they were on the previous one. On a few verses, he actually has an echo on his voice, which gives it the charm of a simple production trick at analysis but just a little more kick as a pop song.
“Girls . . .” has an introduction that is brighter than the title’s repetition as a hook, with harmonized “Ahh-ahh, yeah” vocals and all kick drums. Donato enters with a strong, short slide of a note, and brings with him the extra percussion of guest Michael Osborn, who mans conga drums in the back, allowing Robert to trade to the snare. When the title comes in, repeated in a fashion that’s far from Mötley Crüe’s later refrain of the same–less a frothing look at a sexual smorgasbord from which one expects to acquire at least the number of girls mentioned, than a sense of concentrated overwhelming experience. Donato’s bass is strong and deeper than previously, and Robert’s drums are more forceful. The tone is darker in a way that doesn’t imply a negative emotion, so much as an intensity of thought. There’s a lovely play with harmonies toward the end, overlapping each of their voices singing “Wild”, answered only by backing vocals with “Yeah-eah”, and a brief and subtle solo that doesn’t make much of a big deal about itself.
Donato’s bass is the order of the day with “I’ll Do Anything”, the sound less dry, more funky and further up in the mix, given its chance to define most of the melody, with ringing guitars (again, think power pop) largely functioning more as a chiming rhythm to the bass’s melody. There’s a kind of pull to the music that’s accentuated by Marshall’s vocals, which he modulates through most of the song, holding few pitches for any length of time. He burns out a lead and solo halfway through that are capped by the dug in vocals that are my call for the song’s real hook: “I’ve gotta send a message/Gotta send it to your heart from mine”. Probably the most unique song in the whole of the album as the instruments and his voice all seem to be played, arranged, and mixed with a very different emphasis.
“Rockin Around in N.Y.C.” has a nervous tension to it, the guitar tightly coiled and half deadened by it, Robert’s beat pounding a boundary around the building energy, Donato’s bass appearing only intermittently, until he’s let loose and the song’s energy is released by the chorus: “So round and round and round we go/Through seventeen lines in a row/Take a hold of my hand and come with me/We’ll go rockin’ around in N.Y.C.”, which ends abruptly after that last letter, allowing the following verse to coil tension back into the song. A loose, sliding set of riffs carries the song into a fade-out and let’s the tension become more of a quiet danceability.
Carrying in distinct rockabilly strains, “The Usual Thing” Tony Garnier on “slappin’ bass” for a easy-paced track of handclips and the country-inflected guitars that indicate that rockabilly influence. Of course, like much of Crenshaw’s work, it hints a bit at other early rock styles, with the faintest echos of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” hiding within its grooves. A double-tracked vocal reminds of that same era of music, though the song twists and turns into more contemporary movements quite regularly, though it’s not above the beat of vocals that builds anticipation for the instruments that follow. Crenshaw picks out a steady, non-showy solo into the end of the song, which ends in the familiar fashion of repeating the final line, even finally stopping with the three-chord-beat punctuation that seems to show up most often in oldies cover bands to announce the end of a song.
A distinctly surf guitar intro gives “She Can’t Dance” a different feel at the outset, but the verse opens into the ringing guitar that he uses throughout the majority of the album. The chorus is sung by the group as a whole, though, and gives a more easy pop feel to the whole thing. The bridge adds a whole lot more hook to the vocal, and then a solo that burns it up in classic fashion. It’s also one of the two songs on the album Crenshaw isn’t credited as writing alone, having been joined by Rick Cioffi and Fred Tood in the process.
“Cynical Girl” might easily be the best track on the album. A jangle-y riff that acts as backdrop to the song has the interesting addition of bells to establish melody before Marshall starts singing, which is where the melody is most clearly established. His voice treats his guitar as an outline to work withing the boundaries of, and it it actually has an interesting approach to the idea of love, as a kind of naïve and optimistic romanticism is married to the idea of looking for love in mutual cynicism–though it is cynicism about “the real world” and the rest of it. No doubt Marshall was aware of the contradiction, but the way he sings it betrays nothing of this contradiction.
The distinct and emphatic fingerwork and cheerful tambourine of “Mary Anne” hearken back more to bands from the ’60s in a way (perhaps the Hollies and “Carrie Anne” though it doesn’t actually resemble that particular song too much). It’s a bit Byrdsian, but it turns in another direction when Marshall begins singing the verse, which is actually the right kind of serious for the Mary Anne he is singing to, who is “As down as [she] can be”, though he’s encouraging her to “Go on and have a laugh/Go have a laugh on me”. There’s some lovely harmonizing on the chorus, though, with the rest of the group singing the light variations on the lyrics that indicate many harmonized parts in songs. It leaves the song with the feeling that most of the lyrics were actually Mary Anne’s name, which is entirely appropriate, as it is the puzzling out of how to cheer her up.
While it doesn’t stray too far from the album’s sound, “Soldier of Love” is interesting and a bit unusual–it seems to draw influence from girl groups and the other R&B/soul sounds of the 1960s, though perhaps as it was filtered through the semi-contemporaneous rock groups of the same era. There’s a walk to the bass, a series of eighth notes that lead to quarter notes, thus lending them more weight and giving the song a certain swing. Guitar chords are used more in service of that bassline–none of this is terribly surprising, as the song was originally a soul single for Arthur Alexander (written by Buzz Cason and Tony Moon), and was covered by the Beatles in a BBC studio session (it strongly resembles a lot of their earlier cover material, like “Anna (Go to Him)”–which Alexander himself wrote–or “Baby It’s You”, a hit for the Shirelles, too). The boys in back get to even put in some “Sha la la”s, but it’s the big halt, defined by a snare hit, before the chorus that really makes the song go.
Robert lays down a steady 4/4 on the snare in “Not for Me”, which gives it a propulsive feeling like a lot of work from the groups that would record the songs that “Soldier of Love” was drawn from, though it resembles more of the Spector-y wall of sound-style drums, and Crenshaw’s vocal line (and his very voice) sound like something more appropriate for the year the album is released. “I know definitely/That it’s just not for me”, he sings, and the way his voice rises and suddenly dips is interesting and appealing, but odd.
“Brand New Lover” is probably the most “modern” of the songs on Marshall Crenshaw, though it’s built from the same essential parts that create the nostalgic hints in all of it. The active bass of Donato and the circled strums of guitar jangling in a style that crosses R.E.M.’s with rockabilly. It’s upbeat and dance-y, but it also includes the kind of “a little bit louder now” repetition of “right now” in the middle to keep its influences present in mind.
I sometimes find it difficult to write about the music I know least well, or have enjoyed only briefly and occasionally, and Crenshaw’s stuff in particular gives me some trouble because of the nature of it. It’s pop without question: well-written, well-played, and even rather unique, actually, but its uniqueness is somewhat indefinable, as it isn’t so much about the melding of elder influences, nor about their limited role, nor even about the fact of those two exceptions. It’s a voice that hasn’t been heavily replicated, nor that is a replication itself, that has skill and craft in spades, but all honed to the fine point of clear hooks and simple construction. I can’t explain accurately, then, the appeal of his music, except that it does what pop should: it connects.
- Next Up: The Cult – Love
¹In fact, I was thinking of the song by–no, not the Velvet Underground–the La’s, which was covered by the Boo Radleys and Sixpence None the Richer and seemed to hover around everywhere in a small respect throughout the 1990s. Oops?