Album Review: Marshall Crenshaw (s/t)

Music is a powerful emotional trigger. It’s widely understood that we commonly associate specific songs with distinct memories, and that connection between the two increases the vivid quality of the memory. Hearing a song – or even an entire album – can transport us back in time, in the best possible sense of the concept.

Sometimes the music in question is very much “of its time.” The qualities and characteristics of the music might evoke a particular kind of fashion (be it mod culture, big-hair ‘80s or something else). And that’s fine, but the most rare and enduring music is the kind that lets the listener have it both ways: it reminds of the old days, but it still sounds fresh, vital and here-and-now.

These thought all came to me the moment I considered what I might write about Marshall Crenshaw. My own memories of spending time with the original LP (and cassette dub I made of it so I could listen while tooling around Atlanta in my recently-purchased ‘66 Mustang) are among the most sharp and vivid recollections I hold of that time. Released in April 1982, Crenshaw’s self-titled debut album had a profound effect upon me. I was a college freshman, and the non-commercial radio station at Georgia State University (WRAS-FM) was then one of the most powerful college stations in the country. When I say powerful, I mean it both in terms of wattage and cultural influence.

I suppose it was on WRAS that I first heard “Someday, Someway,” the lead-off single from the long player. Then again, at the time, I was a voracious consumer of music reviews, so it might have been a review – in Rolling Stone or Musician, probably – that hipped me to the new release. I had no real interest in the mainstream releases of the day; neither Elton John’s Jump Up, John Cougar’s American Fool nor (especially) Van Halen’s Diver Down – all released around the same time as Marshall Crenshaw – held any appeal for me. Whether I or anyone else used the term alternative at the time, that was what I sought in music.

Marshall Crenshaw certainly wasn’t a punk album. Its character hearkened back to Buddy Holly (and not just because Crenshaw was pictured on the cover, nattily dressed and bespectacled). The albums tone was unalloyed, free of filigree; no fancy-pants keyboards or effects. Everything about it felt and sounded timeless. And that’s a key to why Marshall Crenshaw sounds as fresh and vital and unpretentious today as it did 41-plus years ago.

The uncluttered arrangements kept the focus on the songs themselves: deceptively simple-sounding songs each with their own character yet somehow sonically unified. Even the album’s sole cover told listeners something about the artist. By 1982, “Soldier of Love” was an obscure oldie, all but unknown to pop music consumers. But those in the know (I counted myself in that category) recognized the song from our bootleg LPs: it was part of The Beatles’ repertoire in their BBC radio days. They never recorded the song at EMI, but their version for radio broadcast was a delight.

I suspected then – and confirmed it some many years later in 2007, during my first of several interviews with Crenshaw – that he had first heard the song not in its first-waxed version (a 1962 Arthur Alexander single) but on a bootleg. Working as the John Lennon character in the traveling cast of Beatlemania*, the young artist would have listened to the Beatles bootleg version for research purposes. (It finally got sanctioned release on the Beatles’ Live at the BBC in 1991.)

For listeners who appreciated the straightforward yet heartfelt music made by artists like Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Graham Parker and other British artists, discovering Crenshaw was a godsend: “Hey: One of ours!” The songs on his debut were shot through with humor, pathos, yearning, loss, regret, hope and promise. Crenshaw drew from his many inspirations — girl groups, the aforementioned Beatles, hard rock and much more – but distilled it all into something that sounded not at all like any of those things. Instead, it sounded like, well, Marshall Crenshaw. And while his subsequent work would (and continues to be) filled with countless gems, after all these years it’s the debut that stops me in my tracks.

There was (I am told) a CD reissue around 2000 that appended the original LP’s dozen tracks with 11 more, but that one passed by without my noticing it. I still have the original record; still play it. A new reissue from Yep Roc Records doesn’t have quite as many bonus cuts (seven this time) but it has an important quality its predecessor reissue lacked: Crenshaw has the rights to it. Some subtly different cover artwork and brief liner notes from the man himself only add appeal to what was a perfect album already. Few albums hit that sweet spot of taking the listener back in time while delivering timeless enjoyment; Marshall Crenshaw is just such a record.


You may also enjoy: a whole bunch of my other Marshal Crenshaw reviews, and a few interviews, too.

*Though of course I didn’t know anything about him at the time, I saw Beatlemania at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, with Crenshaw in the cast, in the late ‘70s. Nearly 30 years later he graciously autographed my concert program.