Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Carola Dibbell
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Simple Because He's Simple

Never blessed with instant recall for Mann-Weil chord changes or guitar licks from old Hollies records, vague on details when people complain that this song is obviously Buddy Holly and that one obviously Lennon-McCartney (which ones? I don't remember), I miss Marshall Crenshaw's references, if he's making any. Charges of self-consciousness and calculation and retro slip right by. So when I first heard Marshall Crenshaw, I filed it mentally under power pop, in 1982 a dated but still useful catchall; and though I did find it a little bland I tested it out the only way I know how: I played it more. Soon it became clear that whether he made them up in his dreams or pilfered them from his vast record collection, Crenshaw had the tunes most power poppers only claim. I didn't just say hi to these tunes as they paraded across the room, either--I actively longed to hear them again. In my critical lexicon, tunes you want to hear again are called "good." The more you want to hear them, the "better" they are. And if they keep getting "better" when other people impose them on you--radio programmers, say, or your wife--they may conceivably be "great."

So if I call Crenshaw subtle, I don't mean, for instance, that rather than exploiting the music of his betters, his quotations and allusions (if he's making any) link disparate realms in recombinant blah-blah-blah, though they may. I'm trying to do justice to that first album, which seems simple because it is simple, yet continue to unfold long after you'd think its byways played out. Listening back, I realize that Crenshaw accomplishes this not with the snazzy bridges and key changes of the traditional pop arsenal, but by repeating lines at odd junctures or bringing in the chorus again when you're anticipating another verse. And what's just as important is that I've enjoyed these tricks dozens upon dozens of times without once wondering how they were done--without noticing that they were tricks at all.

Marshall Crenshaw was a surprisingly profitable debut, yielding a top 40 single and selling some 250,000 copies in the last and flattest of the biz's dinosaur years. Field Day, which didn't do half as well, was a misconceived sequel. With Steve Lillywhite doctoring Crenshaw's efficient trio (Marshall on guitar, brother Robert on drums, Chris Donato on bass) until it boomed and echoed like cannons in a cathedral, the production seemed designed to prove that Marshall wasn't retro; what it demonstrated instead was that however genuine your commitment to the present, you can look pretty stupid adjusting to its fashions. Eventually Crenshaw fans noticed that song for song Field Day was the equal of its predecessor, and I actually prefer it myself, but with New Faces of MTV at every checkout counter, Warners certainly didn't. Album three was two years coming.

Although the T-Bone Burnett-produced Downtown (Warner Bros.) betrays telltale signs of commercial anxiety--studio hands replacing road band, one track given over to, uh-oh, Mitch Easter--I can't discern its commercial strategy, misconceived or otherwise. I suspect that's because it doesn't have one--that Crenshaw said the hell with it, and just tried to make the best record he could. An ex-critic at Warners remarks that it sounds played rather than produced, which is true despite the unfamiliar musicians (who do remain pretty constant throughout), and the most passionate Crenshaw fan of my acquaintance is partial to its vocal highlighting. But these effects are extensions of the naturalistic illusion that is Crenshaw's aim in life. This is a smart man bent on defying analysis.

Walking into Toad's Place in New Haven September 28 as Crenshaw's now five-piece band bopped through the syncopated chorus of their opening number, Downtown's negligible "(We're Gonna) Shake Up Their Minds," I got my Marshall buzz. Whether airy and precise or heavy on the drums of jammed loose like this warmup, Crenshaw's gigs always brim with the same unassuming putatively effortless vitality; they seem to grow out of the bandstand. That surge of grace is his trademark; maybe even his message. As far as I'm concerned, Crenshaw doesn't try to recreate anything; if he's sometimes too respectful of the past--introducing a slightly wimpy cover of Ferlin Husky's "Gone," he claimed fealty to the entire 1957 hit parade--he's in no sense stuck there. 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, music in the making rather than music as artifact, Downtown gets this unpretentious message across better than Marshall Crenshaw or Field Day, but not without sacrifice, because it lacks pretensions to live up to. But not only does it aim a little low, it's nowhere close to perfect, and the other two are. You pick your exception and I'll pick mine, but basically there are no weak lyrics on the first two albums--no banalities, no false moves, no duds. The debut brushes by the everyday phrases that are the stuff of songwriting to add a twist or make an oblique point--cynical girl, she can't dance, the usual thing. Thus he captures a kind of magic ur-adolescent innocence without acting the simp. On Field Day he grows up with a bang--though his relationships are suddenly touched with disaster, he vows to try till he dies. Lillywhite's drum sound reinforces the surprising depth of the record, conveying both Crenshaw's sense of doom and his will to overcome it. Believe me, nothing so complicated happens on Downtown. He really wants this one simple.

Downtown is filled with the kind of songs those who consider Crenshaw one more retrotrooper always thought he wrote. They're well-crafted, fully imagined, and the commitment and understated sexual urgency on Crenshaw's singing makes them real--"Little Wild One (No. 5)," for instance, is no less compelling than the Isleys' "That Lady" or Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing" and more detailed, and "Yvonne," which he describes as about sex," is a classic name song. But they say pretty much what they seem to say. "Terrifying Love" and "Like a Vague Memory" live up to their titles, no more, while "I'm Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)," which improves on its wonderful title, is Ben Vaughn's song, not Crenshaw's. 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." An earlier Crenshaw would have glanced right off that tired trope.

Maybe straightforward lyrics are some kind of commercial strategy, but more likely they're there to reinforce the message, which as I said is music. And though it's smooth instead of clean or big, this record can certainly play alongside the others; it may be electric rather than electronic, but it's the kind of album whose negligible songs can open your set, which I hope the radio boys take into account. At the moment, Crenshaw is proving his professional resolve by opening for Howard Jones nationwide, and will do his 40 minutes at Byrne Arena tonight, October 16. Me, I'd wait for him to headline. At Toad's he and his boys transformed Jackie Wilson's 1957 "Reet Petite" into a guitar anthem entitled "She's So Fine." I didn't get the meaning of the reference, exactly, but it sure sounded like rock and roll to me.

Village Voice, Oct. 22, 1985

Postscript Notes:

This essay was subsequently revised--combined with a piece from 1983--for its appearance in Grown Up All Wrong.