Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Marshall Crenshaw

  • Marshall Crenshaw [Warner Bros., 1982] A
  • Field Day [Warner Bros., 1983] A+
  • U.S. Remix [Warner Bros. EP, 1983] B+
  • Downtown [Warner Bros., 1985] A-
  • Mary Jean & Nine Others [Warner Bros., 1987] B
  • Good Evening [Warner Bros., 1989] A-
  • Life's Too Short [Paradox/MCA, 1991] B+
  • Live . . . My Truck Is My Home [Razor & Tie, 1994] A-
  • Miracle of Science [Razor & Tie, 1996] ***
  • The 9-Volt Years [Razor & Tie, 1998] Neither
  • #447 [Razor & Tie, 1999] A-
  • What's in the Bag? [Razor & Tie, 2003] **
  • Jaggedland [429, 2009] ***

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Marshall Crenshaw [Warner Bros., 1982]
This album seems simple because it is simple, yet it continues to unfold long after you believe its byways played out--not by exploiting the snazzy bridges and key changes of the traditional pop arsenal, but with lines repeated at odd junctures, choruses reentering when you anticipate another verse. Brushing by the everyday phrases that are the stuff of pop songwriting--cynical girl, she can't dance, the usual thing--to add a twist or make an oblique point, Crenshaw captures a magic ur-adolescent innocence without acting the simp. It's as sly and well-meaning as his love of girls. A

Field Day [Warner Bros., 1983]
With Steve Lillywhite doctoring Crenshaw's efficient trio until it booms and echoes like cannons in a cathedral, the production doesn't prove Marshall isn't retro, though he isn't. It proves that no matter how genuine your commitment to the present, you can look pretty stupid adjusting to fashion--as usual, production brouhaha is a smokescreen for the betrayal of impossibly ecstatic expectation. Think of Talking Heads 77, New York Dolls, Exile on Main Street, or (for you oldsters) Moby Grape, all in fact a little botched aurally, all classics. Since the problem here isn't mess but overdefinition, a more precise comparison might be Give 'Em Enough Rope, but with a crucial difference: The Clash had better songs than its follow-up, while this follow-up has better songs than the debut. The man has grown up with a bang--though his relationships are suddenly touched with disaster, he vows to try till he dies. And you know what? Lillywhite's drum sound reinforces Crenshaw's surprising new depth--both his sense of doom and his will to overcome it. A+

U.S. Remix [Warner Bros. EP, 1983]
That's right, import--the long-rumored non-Lillywhite unhyped-drums version of three songs from Field Day plus a live Elvis (Presley) cover and a DOR remix of "For Her Love." In addition to balancing the instruments, the remixes add a few decorative flourishes, and as a Crenshaw fanatic I've already put them on a special tape. Did I get it free? You bet. What do you take me for--a collector? B+

Downtown [Warner Bros., 1985]
One reason his debunkers can't decide whether he's ripping off Buddy Holly (nice boy, wears glasses) or John Lennon (played him in Beatlemania, wears glasses) is that he loves the music of the '50s just the way '60s rockers did before they fell victim to hippie condescension--not as living tradition but as living music. With its played-not-produced intimation of process, Downtown gets this unpretentious message across--this is the kind of album whose negligible songs can open your set. It's well-crafted, fully imagined. The commitment and understated sexual urgency of Crenshaw's singing make it real. But it's filled with the quality retropop his debunkers always thought he wrote. Even the pointedly mature "The Distance Between" has a fairly arbitrary happy ending, which you'd figure from the way it stresses "When it gets right down to the bottom line." Two years ago, Crenshaw would have glanced right off that tired trope. A-

Mary Jean & Nine Others [Warner Bros., 1987]
Work too long toward a future that never arrives and you lose your hold on what comes naturally. Where once he soared, now he drags, and don't blame Don Dixon, whose hitbound modesty and popful soul match Marshall's fine. When your strongest song is about how nobody understands you, you're crying out for a spiritual lift no producer can provide. B

Good Evening [Warner Bros., 1989]
With three covers, two written-to-orders, three collaborations, and just two songs by Crenshaw working alone, it looks like his muse got bored and departed for greener climes. But not since the debut has he sounded so at ease, so himself. The way he sings them, Richard Thompson's choleric "Valerie" and John Hiatt's lost "Someplace Where Love Can't Find Me" are kind, and Bobby Fuller's "Let Her Dance" turns into an I-love-music song no less awestruck (or womanstruck) than Crenshaw-Llanas-Neumann's "Radio Girl." Maybe his expectations have diminished so far that he's in that Zen zone where all effort is grace. Simple because he's simple--the second time around. A-

Life's Too Short [Paradox/MCA, 1991]
By now there's comfort in his surprising little modulations as well as his plain-spoken prosody, and it's nigh on 10 years since he collected so many strong songs; heard live, "Better Back Off" and "Don't Disappear Now" seem no less inevitable than "Cynical Girl" or "Whenever You're on My Mind." But even if he finally gets his just market share, the new converts won't sing the same praises as the original faithful, because by now his feeling for his craft runs to weary wisdom rather than brimming delight. Marshall's compact solos and Kenny Aronoff's firm beat reinforce his resolve without hinting at his grace. B+

Live . . . My Truck Is My Home [Razor & Tie, 1994]
You know the Iron Law of Live Albums: "They all suck." And you also know the Great Exception: "Unless you're a big big fan." Which, all right, I am--not least because his intelligence, integrity, and passion for the great song always show up in his music. As for instance here: 14 titles recorded at eleven separate engagements, most of '90s provenance but two dating back to '82, including fabulous covers of Dave Alvin and Alvin Cash, Bobby Fuller and the Byrds, Abba and the MC 5. And even the ones he wrote himself will remind those who never fell for that wimp nonsense about his passion for great guitar. The man can play. A-

Miracle of Science [Razor & Tie, 1996]
picking 'em better than he writes 'em ("Twenty-Five Forty-One," "The `In' Crowd," "Theme From `Flaregun'") ***

The 9-Volt Years [Razor & Tie, 1998] Neither

#447 [Razor & Tie, 1999]
Although Crenshaw likes to call his g-b-d trio rockabilly, he's not above keybs, gives a fiddler one, and weaves in three instrumentals that are anything but filler-mood-setting rock and roll lounge music, melodic and contemplative. On an album that negotiates the awkward transition from superannuated teen to balding homebody, the two well-crafted infidelity songs don't altogether mesh with the two well-crafted should-have-loved-you-better songs. The masterstroke is "Glad Goodbye," which passes for the world's millionth breakup song while addressing a much rarer theme: a couple, both of 'em, dumping a home and a physical history they no longer love. A-

What's in the Bag? [Razor & Tie, 2003]
Worked-over meditations on the persistence of romance ("Will We Ever?," "Where Homes Used to Be"). **

Jaggedland [429, 2009]
From that spiritual place where you conclude that since life doesn't resolve neatly, neither should songs ("Passing Through," "Right on Time"). ***

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