Though rarely stated, theres often a knotty challenge implicit in reissue reviews. Whether battling overfamiliarity or the weight of past critical judgment, the writer endeavors to listen with fresh ears, hopefully coaxing original insight and hidden inspiration from long-cherished works.
So be warned, there was a time in my youth when Marshall Crenshaws self-titled debut was a mainstay. For an emotionally reticent geek whose record collection often doubled as trusted confidant, Crenshaws three-minute vignettes made sense of an often murky, post-adolescent landscape.
On record, our hero, unimpressed with The Usual Thing, searches for a Cynical Girl, perhaps Mary Anne…but no, There She Goes Again with another guy; undaunted, he indulges a weekend blowout, Rockin Around in N.Y.C., before beginning his search for a Brand New Lover. And, with its crisp production and surfeit of hooks, the album also played well at parties, achieving that rare synthesis personal touchstone and popular favorite. Accuse me of nostalgia if you must, but Marshall Crenshaw is well-nigh indispensable.
Of course, a similar accusation (nostalgia not indispensability) has hounded Crenshaw for much of his career. The large, unfashionable spectacles, the 50s-vintage hairstyle, his stint in Beatle_mania, his vaguely Buddy Holly-esque demeanor (plus a cameo as Holly in La Bamba) the gifted songwriter is obviously retro, perhaps even a closeted formalist. But such cavils seem slightly perverse, if not wrongheaded, when confronted with the recorded evidence simple yet vibrant, redolent of effortless grace and an unmistakable joy.
At worst, Crenshaw is a classicist, one whose strengths are rooted firmly in songcraft. Bypassing the confessional/narrative leanings of the 70s singer-songwriter school, Crenshaws songs boast an organic, seemingly inevitable union of words (as sung) and music (as played). Building upon the structural foundations of…well, the Beatles and Holly, the artist reworks pop readymades until they sparkle: a lyric rising heavenward on a soaring bridge, a sly turn of phrase matched by a just-right guitar figure, a verbal aside or grunt announcing an instrumental break.
In its most recent incarnation, Crenshaws near-perfect debut receives the Deluxe Edition treatment, rounded out by a generous selection of period-specific rarities. And though the assembled oddments and arcana hardly match the power and ease of the official product, they offer plenty of succor for the committed Crenshaw-head. Early demos, sporting a basement tapes ambience, capture the wunder_kind as one-man band: an ebullient, shimmering Starlit Summer Sky, a spare, maracas-driven Whenever Youre On My Mind.
The live additions, though lacking the authority and sweep of the tour scrapbook …My Truck Is My Home, showcase the singers exquisite taste in covers. Rave On is too obvious, but spirited renditions of such dimly recalled chestnuts as Stop Her On Sight (S.O.S.) and Ive Been Good To You represent pop archeology at its best. Ultimately, the package documents a period in which Crenshaws sure touch seemingly guaranteed infallibility.
But the artists career peaked early. The standard critical canard (ossified over time into incontrovertible historical fact) is that Crenshaw squandered his ineffable gifts in misguided pursuit of a mass audience first the Steve Lillywhite-produced/botched follow-up Field Day, then an increasingly sporadic string of slight, insular records. Betraying the unreasonable expectations-qua-demands of besotted critics, the singer suffered a backlash born of bitter disappointment.
But in retrospect, Field Day is every bit the equal of its predecessor, and his later albums, though increasingly idiosyncratic and marginal, are marked by the invention and craft of a music-obsessed lifer the knack may have diminished somewhat, but the passion has never flagged. With a quality back-catalog amassed over two decades, Crenshaw has produced enough ace material to power an undeniable two-disc set. Thus, the recently released single-disc comp This Is Easy surely promises an embarrassment of riches.
Thing is, reissue reviews harbor yet another inherent risk. Inevitably, the well-schooled critic has a better understanding of an artists oeuvre than some label-appointed compiler (even if said compiler happens to be the artist himself). So yes, I have my gripes: The collection short-changes Crenshaws later work; the inspired covers on Miracle Of Science are shut out; Like A Vague Memory is a limp dog.
But these complaints, ultimately the rumblings of a jealously protective fan, are misleading, if not irresponsible in light of the many virtues of This Is Easy: two early, pivotal singles rescued from collectorama, three unerringly selected cuts from the other_wise negligible Mary Jean And 9 Others, two late-period sureshots (the John Hiatt-penned Someplace Where Love Cant Find Me and the Kenny Aronoff-powered Better Back Off). All in all, a fitting testament to the unaffected pleasures of a music that continues to surprise and delight. Nostalgia be damned, this stuff is timeless.