Day Forty-Seven: Marshall Crenshaw – Marshall Crenshaw

Warner Bros. Records ■ BSK 3673

Released April 28, 1982

Produced by Richard Gottehrer and Marshall Crenshaw
Engineered by Thom Panunzio, Jim Ball [Assisting]
Mastered by Greg Calbi

Side One: Side Two:
  1. There She Goes Again
  2. Someday, Someway
  3. Girls . . .
  4. I’ll Do Anything
  5. Rockin’ Around in N.Y.C.
  6. The Usual Thing
  1. She Can’t Dance
  2. Cynical Girl
  3. Mary Anne
  4. Soldier of Love
  5. Not for Me
  6. Brand New Lover

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?


Day Thirty-Nine: Eric Clapton – Slowhand

RSO Records ■ RS-1-3030
Released November, 1977
Produced by Glyn Johns

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Cocaine
  2. Wonderful Tonight
  3. Lay Down Sally
  4. Nex Time You See Her
  5. We’re All the Way
  1. The Core
  2. May You Never
  3. Mean Old Frisco
  4. Peaches & Diesel

I’m not going to pretend my age doesn’t show in some measure in these writings (and particularly in what records I actually own on vinyl), but in noting that I grew up with Eric Clapton’s Unplugged on cassette in my family’s vehicles, I’m going to date myself a little more explicitly than I might have previously. Clapton has always been one of the most fixed sounds in my musical experience of the world–not so much in the sense of constant appearances, but in the sense that there has never been a moment that his work seemed to be either bizarre or uncomfortably trite. I did grow up with the “blasphemous” notion that the acoustic version of “Layla” was better, hearing it a million times before I ever heard the electric one, which was a jarring experience, let me tell you. I’m often left sputtering that including the instrumental outro as proof of the original’s superiority is just “cheating”. Of course, what I really mean is, “Yeah, you’re right, and I just like the pacing and sort of bluesier feel of the acoustic one. Sue me.”

As an extension, more than the Yardbirds or even Cream, it was Eric Clapton’s solo work that really seemed to be most “timeless” to me–not in the sense that it was most lasting, so much as established, undated and seemingly “always” there, if only to me. I never have mistaken it for an actual external permanence or “eternal” nature, but I can’t think of a time I didn’t know “It’s in the Way That You Use It”, the acoustic singles (alongside “Layla”, of course “Tears in Heaven” and maybe “Before You Accuse Me”), “Wonderful Tonight” or a small stack of others. And, indeed, it was my sappiness (that I have mentioned before) that really spurred the interest in this album, and it naturally relates to that very song.

I mentioned, when I wrote about Ziggy Stardust, that eventually we’d see some records with permanent black “X”s drawn in their top right corners. Shockingly, I find this is the first to appear. Of course, some have lost out in polls, so there’s that. The X is an indicator that the title came from the bargain $1 bin at my (now sadly passed) favourite music store, Musik Hut (formerly) in Fayetteville, NC. I would peruse the heck out of that thing in high school, often walking out with semi-classic albums in great condition, classic albums in iffy condition, and obscure albums in excellent condition. My copy of The Boomtown RatsThe Fine Art of Surfacing actually has its “X” on still-intact shrinkwrap–and yes, unfortunately, I’m quite sure that counts as obscure these days, though not on the level that many I own do. Mid-range obscure, perhaps.

In any case, Slowhand is one of the Clapton solo albums that is saddled with placement on “best album ever” lists, though usually not exceptionally high. Even appearing on them at all does mean, however, that this album crackles and pops a bit (not as much as my copy of Ziggy, or a fair number of other LPs), and, worst of all, has two (unintentional) locked grooves in “Peaches & Diesel”. I always forget both of them, and so, coupled with their placement in the final track, it’s always pretty disappointing when they appear. With that in mind, I am of course going to cheat just a bit on this and use my digital copies–which I’ll admit I always use for in-the-moment dissection as I write all the time, though I always do sit and listen to all my records all the way through for this. I patiently lifted and nudged the needle to escape both a few times, trying to lose as little music as possible, but I’m still going to use the digital copy as my “reference”, a first for this kind of “replacement”.

Slowhand is, of course, named for Eric’s own nickname, and it opens with a pretty significant combination: all three singles from the album come out in a row, some of them absolutely iconic for Clapton, or even rock music in general. “Cocaine” starts things off with a little fire at low flame: J.J. Cale’s easy riding tune is laidback, but it cuts and it burns. Largely hanging out on a simple “boom-bap” bass-snare beat, Jamie Oldaker lays a firm frame out for the famed riff, dense up front, then eased and free at the end. The hissing hi-hat Oldaker is hiding on top of the beat, though, is like a fuse to an explosion that never comes, and never should. There’s a halt for repetition at the chorus: “She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie…” and it stands on freed guitar chords and short rises from Oldaker, it’s ended quietly with Clapton’s anticlimactic delayed antecedent: “…Cocaine.” It wouldn’t be Clapton, or maybe there wouldn’t be a sort of “Clapton™” (perhaps no OBE title) without the sparks and rising licks of flame that mark the solos at the halfway mark and fading out the ending.

As with Shake It Up, there was probably one primary driving force behind my purchase of Slowhand, and that was “Wonderful Tonight”. Yes, it’s a cliché for school dances now (so I’m told, at least), and yes it’s a bit schmaltzy if you feel the need to be above such things (and maybe even if you don’t), but pulling that much feeling out of a single bend has got to be some kind of accomplishment we can all respect. While Dick Sims’ keyboards, the backing vocals of Marcy Levy and Yvonne Elliman (particularly on the chorus), and the laidback drumming of Oldaker set the stage, with a special nod to Sims as bearer of the core of the song, it’s that lick. The handful of variants Clapton works out at the end are special as well, but it’s just a little bend and two notes and it aches with all the kind of sweet, innocent love that Clapton is clearly at least perceiving here. Sure, Pattie Boyd, the alleged subject, had been married to another man when Clapton first fell for her, and would later succumb to addictions and extramarital temptations (to put it ever-so-mildly) that would ruin their marriage, but that’s not what this is–this isn’t about reality. This is the feeling that precedes it–sometimes runs right through it, and has little to do with the final facts. In the same sense that romantic anything media-expressed is going to be a rough outline at best, or scattered details.

From the dark hints of “Cocaine” into the sad, awed beauty of “Wonderful Tonight”, we get one of the most simply fun and pleasant tracks the album has to offer, the final single, “Lay Down Sally”. Written with bandmates Marcy Levy and George Terry (who mans the other guitars on the album), it’s a countryfied, jaunty, comfortable little tune. Clapton is joined by Levy and Elliman for the great majority of the track on vocals. The track is spare, but only cut free of any extraneous fat. Carl Radle’s bass walks at an easy gait, alternating back and forth with a simple tune that fits with the feeling of crystalline studio-infused backporch performance. The picked and plucked guitar keeps the tune low and contained, even when Eric improvises and expands at a few odd moments, and prevents it from losing its familiarity by becoming too showy.

The mixed tones and emotions of “Next Time You See Her” quickly grew to some of my favourites on the album, as Sims’ organ introduction is dramatic but plays the role of backing to the exquisitely emotive lead guitar that takes centerstage in front of it. Eric sings of the woman in question, describing her in  pleasant and loving terms, but a firmly accented acoustic and drum beat matches his words and embellishes the sound of the song; “Next time you see her/Tell her that I love her…” he sings, and now we know she’s not there with him, and it seems quite sweet, but then he turns the lyric in another direction: “Next time I see you/Boy, you’d better beware.” After a threatening verse (“I’m just trying to warn you/That you’re bound to get hurt…”), he repeats the chorus, and, seeing this is not enough, the song eases off to just hi-hat, restrained but intermittently spiking organ, and a pleasantly bouncy feeling as he quietly sings the final clarification: “If you see here again/I will surely kill you.” The song itself is gloriously ignorant of its lyrical content, and it may be my favourite on the album.

A full relaxation from the tension, aching feel of love that can’t be expressed fully enough, a bit of fun, and serious threats, “We’re All the Way” is a nice break. The song is light and gentle, in the same easy pace as the album as a whole, and Eric’s voice acts with the others as something approaching a duet (or a trio; I’m not always good at separating these things!). Distinctly short for the album, it’s almost like a worthwhile afterthought, not fluff or confection, just passing wisps of substance.

Somewhat unexpectedly long, “The Core” is roiling blues-rock, though the pace continues at its usual relaxed rate. One of those licks that tucks all its varied ends into all right corners and slots to come out sound more like a simple riff, but detailed upon closer inspection, Levy’s voice actually opens the song as a more complete duet with Clapton’s. The chorus’s rising stomp of melodic rhythm, the “brakes” of Sims’ pounded organ keys all lead to a fantastically tasty variation on the core (ahem) lick in near isolation. It turns and curls backward on itself, moving downward like a dancer sure to get each foot on every stair, up one for every two it goes down before it just releases and spreads at the end. It just rings out over nothing but hi-hat and the tone and recording are just damnably good. This sound eventually turns to a restrained solo that leads into the absolute histrionics of a Mel Collins saxophone solo (we last heard from Mel on Mike Batt’s Tarot Suite), which only trades into a far more freed guitar solo, the sense of a “jam” explaining the runtime of the song (nearly nine minutes).

While Clapton has a lovely and enjoyable voice, it’s at its best in “May You Never”, the melody and momentary vibrato he works into the chorus (which opens the song) is just delightful, and perfect for the laidback way he uses his voice. It’s the sound of a warm well-wishing to a leaving acquaintance–close enough for this to be heartfelt, distant enough for the wishes to be more general than specific.

Pulling out the only straight blues cover on the album, “Mean Old Frisco” reworks the Arthur Crudup song into one that vaguely hints at the country accents of the album’s overall sound. You wouldn’t know it from the way Clapton plays though. His voice and slide guitar follow each other so closely, it’s hard to tell which is coming “first”. Sims attacks the piano with the improvisation of pure feeling, but keeps it from competing too directly with the two slide guitars. Clapton also works his voice into his best subdued bluesman, which only helps it to follow the slide. And that is some delicious slide.

Tucked away at the end, “Peaches & Diesel” is the sole instrumental on the album. It almost seems like a sort of medley or amalgamation of the songs that precede it. Radle’s bass is at some of its most active, the upward swing of the tone against the semi-melancholy keys and peaks and valleys of single-picked guitar. The smooth, easy lead that sings over it eventually takes over, and guides the rest of the instruments through the rest of the song, moving briefly into a section that reminds one of “Wonderful Tonight” without explicitly quoting it. Bittersweet melancholy seems too harsh for the song, especially when the guitar guides everything to a few high notes, but it does carry the sense of passing, of times now seen only in memory, happy though they may be, they are inaccessible. Sims’s organ becomes soulful and free, though, and punches through with a brighter feeling overall. Though repeatedly coming back down, the overall thrust does remain upward. Perhaps there’s something to naming an instrumental with the word “Peaches” that renders it artful and lovely (if you know what other piece I’m referring to, you get some bonus points–otherwise, you’ll get it in, er, a few months). It all acts as a lovely coda to the album, not clearly ending, or even fading it all away, just carrying the sounds of the album off with itself, and condensing them to leave them all in your ears and mind after the album itself fades.

So, sure: I bought the album for $1 (if I listed purchasing price for everything, it might either be enlightening or misleading, actually–too much more goes into it than that), but that doesn’t make it bad. I know Eric tends to receive a lot of knocks as a player these days, more and more seeming like the general notion is “white-guy-steals-blues, gets way too much credit and actually isn’t that great”. I’m not a player. I never will be. I’m not going to profess anything on that front, as it would be stated in ignorance, and achieve nothing useful. What I will say–what I can say–is that his playing is effective. If it isn’t technically impressive (and I don’t know that it isn’t, either) it does what it should, and does it very well. This album has always pleased me because it is not about showmanship, not even the kind that permeates the blues as a fixture, the sort exhibited in songs played like “Mean Old Frisco”–there’s that one track and no other. I love Johnny Winter (also months away), but there’s no doubting the reason it turns my father away is inaccurate. It’s fireworks throughout, seemingly no note left unplayed, no lick left to languish. To me, that does have a place, but it shouldn’t be everything–I suppose that could very well be my musical epitaph, actually–and this exhibits something almost counter to it as a result: a guitar album that’s very definitively about the songs and maybe, just maybe, not actually a guitar album at all (other than the cover, of course).

  • Next Up: The Clash – To Be Determined! (See Polls on Right)