Joseph Taylors "On Music": Marshall
Marshall Crenshaw is a triple
threat -- a great songwriter, an impassioned rock'n'roll singer, and a formidable
guitarist. He writes songs that seem effortlessly melodic, but theyre the kind of
tunes that can come only from hard work and craftsmanship. His eponymous first LP,
released in 1982, was universally acclaimed, and for good reason. Crenshaw, whos
always shown a deep appreciation for the history of songwriting, absorbed every great pop
influence of the previous 30 years and synthesized them to create something new. When I
asked him which songwriters influenced him the most, Crenshaw named Brian Wilson, Thom
Bell, and Burt Bacharach. "I guess Burt was a big influence on the other two,"
he said. "Anyway, the chord changes in their songs always grabbed me in an emotional
way. I still love what they did and have just absorbed it."
Crenshaws songs sound fresh, despite being solidly
based on traditional rock. His records have been remarkably consistent during the last 28
years, though tin-eared critics felt his 80s LPs for Warner Brothers fell short of
the standards set by his debut. Still, "Whenever Youre on My Mind" (from Field
Day, 1983) "The Distance Between" (from Downtown, 1984),
"Calling Out for Love (at Crying Time)" (from Mary Jean & 9 Others,
1987), and many others were memorable and radio friendly. A few critics, such as
Robert Christgau, have been supportive over the years and others have since come to
reappraise Crenshaws Warner Brothers albums. In 1991 Crenshaw moved to MCA/Paradox,
and he later switched to Razor & Tie, where he remained until 2003, releasing
consistently well-written and well-received songs.
Jaggedland (FTN 17771) is Crenshaws tenth
studio album and his first for Santa Monicas indie 429 Records. A dark undercurrent
runs through some of the songs, such as "Stormy River" ("Your eyes are
brown like a stormy river / Your words they twist like a stormy river") and
"Eventually" (Watching headline news / Sociopaths and fools on
parade"). As a result, Jaggedland contains some of Crenshaws richest and
most emotionally absorbing lyrics. "I set out to write the best songs I could write,
and to make sure that I felt and believed everything I was saying," he said. The
songs are also musically rich, as with the juxtaposition of major- and minor-scale lines
in "Right on Time." Crenshaw clearly hasnt lost his ability to create
melodies that linger in your mind and pull you in.
He also doesnt seem to have lost any of his vocal
range. Some seem to think that Crenshaws singing, which is similar to Paul
McCartneys in its ease and clear phrasing, lacks effort or emotion. Elvis Costello,
whose songwriting skills and influences are in some ways similar to those of Crenshaw, has
a powerful and expressive voice, though he isnt as pure a singer. But Crenshaw sings
with great feeling, and either the years have been kind or hes taken great care of
his voice, because he hits high notes as easily as he did 28 years ago. His singing and
his rich vocal harmonies, along with his love of a wide range of pop music (when I saw him
live in 1991, he covered Molly Hatchets "Flirtin with Disaster"),
make his records memorable and enjoyable.
I saw Crenshaw perform in late January. He accompanied
himself on guitar, and his command of the instrument amazed me. His chord changes have
more in common with jazz than rock, and he even studied jazz guitar at one point. "I
took a few lessons from Sal Salvador in New York back in 86, then a few more from
Peter Einhorn in Woodstock a few years later, just trying to fill in some gaps in what I
was able to figure out on my own," he said. But despite his ability, he doesnt
show off. He instead uses his skills to strengthen his songwriting. "I just think
that knowledge is power," he said of the influence formal study has had on his work.
Crenshaw has the chops of a bona fide rock guitar hero, and
Jaggedland contains many examples of his talents as a soloist. Hes an
impressive player, but his beautifully constructed solos are always grounded in the
songs melody. "Right on Time" features a flurry of blinding notes and fast
pull-offs followed by a series of double-tracked guitar lines, with a 12 string in the
left channel and a six string in the right, that bring the solo to a logical conclusion.
"Someone Told Me" is built on a series of dark, funky guitar riffs that John
Fogerty would be proud of, and Crenshaw fires off a rockabilly solo a la Cliff Gallup,
Gene Vincents great guitar player. On "Stormy River," a hard-edged rocker,
Crenshaw and Wayne Kramer of the MC5 trade licks and let the sparks fly.
Two ballads, "Passing Through" and "Never
Coming Down," demonstrate Crenshaws considerable gifts as a ballad writer, as
theyre sincere and moving without ever descending into sentimentality. Other songs
on the disc, such as the oddball "Gasoline Baby" and the title track, help vary Jaggedlands
mood and pace. "Jaggedland" is a pleasant instrumental interlude, enriched
by a reassuring Mellotron and a warm, subtle string arrangement by Rob Morseberger, who
also arranged the strings on the medium-tempo "Sunday Blues." Crenshaws
great ear for arrangements and his use of instruments not often heard in rock, like the
upright bass and the vibraphone, make Jaggedland an enjoyable sonic experience. And
though the credits list six studios, the disc maintains a consistent, coherent sound.
At least part of the credit for the discs sound goes
to Jerry Boys, who mixed and co-mastered the album. He also co-produced Jaggedland and
engineered a number of its tracks. "I love the recording process," Crenshaw
said, "and Im totally engaged when Im making a record. My last few
records (on Razor & Tie) were all at least half home-studio efforts. Some good people
like Greg Calbi, Brad Jones, and Gene Holder got involved, but I engineered a lot of the
stuff myself. I just work on instinct, and sometimes its hit and miss. But on this
record I sought out one of the best recording engineers on the planet, Jerry Boys, and
left the sonic picture entirely in his hands. He started at Abbey Road and Olympic in the
60s and has literally done it all."
Jaggedland features an impressive lineup of
musicians, including drummer Jim Keltner. "At some point I decided that I wanted to
play this stuff with [him]. Like every other musician I know, I just think hes
ridiculously good. I go back quite a few years with the great [steel guitarist] Greg
Leisz. He was the second person I asked to join the band, and he recommended Sebastian
Steinberg on bass. I wanted a vibraphone player, and everybody I asked mentioned only one
person: Emil Richards. We played everything live, and it was just such a blast.
Having said all that though, I have to mention that while 80 percent of the record was
done in L.A., four of the tracks include great New York musicians like Diego Voglino on
drums, Jason Crigler on guitar -- people Ive worked with a lot over the last few
Ultimately, the songs are what make Jaggedland click.
You can hear echoes of Buddy Holly and the Beatles, the British Invasion, and swampland
funk, and it all hangs together because of Crenshaws skills and his musical
imagination. Steve Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteens guitarist and the host of Little
Stevens Underground Garage, wrote a terrific
piece a few years ago about the state of rocknroll. "Songwriting is
pretty much a lost art," he wrote, "but if new bands study the '60s (as every
band in any genre should do) and compare their stuff to the 20 or 30 great garage
classics, something good is bound to happen." Marshall Crenshaw is from roughly the
same generation as Van Zandt, and he studied the same records. A new generation of
songwriters should add him to their course of study.
. . . Joseph Taylor