Marshall Crenshaw stays true to his muse
By Brian McCollum
Knight Ridder Newspapers
To turn out his best album in years, Marshall Crenshaw got back to doing things the way he used to: by himself.
Four years of solo gigs taught the revered singer-songwriter a few things about his own legacy. Onstage with just a guitar and 20 years' worth of material, there was no band to gussy things up, no showmanship to embellish the proceedings. Just Crenshaw, his melodies and his lyrics.
He got a quick lesson in what makes a Marshall Crenshaw song work.
"It really forced me to take a hard look at my catalog and decide which songs held up," says Crenshaw from home in New York. "Having gone through that process, when I started to write a couple of years ago, I realized it would be a good idea for me to really make sure that each of the songs was built like the proverbial brick (outhouse). That just in case I would still be doing these songs five or 10 years from now, I'd still be able to get a buzz from singing them."
The result is "What's in the Bag?" released in July, a deceptively rich record that stands up with the best from Crenshaw's career. With nine originals and two covers, including Prince's "Take Me With U," it's like much of his latter-day work: cool, laid-back and jazzy. Tempered are the peppy rhythms and vintage pop stylings that defined his early material and made him a favorite among rock purists. It's an album some might call mellow -- and not as a complaint.
At 49, Crenshaw is grooming his music in a way that's tasteful and intelligent. So maybe, when it comes down to it, nothing has really changed.
Crenshaw is one of the hidden gems of rock. A critical favorite since his debut work in the early '80s -- much of it conceived and crafted on a bedroom tape machine -- he long ago earned a reputation among rock's cognoscenti as a bearer of the old-school torch. His sources were dated but classic: Buddy Holly. The Beatles. The back streets of '50s and '60s R&B.
; While he's reluctant to fully embrace the label of "rock 'n' roll scholar" -- he could slay just about anybody on pop trivia -- Crenshaw is undoubtedly one of rock's most literate voices. But being smart has its drawbacks because there's a dilemma that most brainy artists confront at some point: getting tangled up in their own intellect, too analytical about how to make their musical gift work. The creative process can become self-conscious.
Crenshaw concedes there was a point in the 1990s when he felt pressured by outside expectations. "I kind of fought my way through all that," he says. There were "parameters in my head imposed on me by the people I was dealing with, and that was a drag."
But it's clear that Crenshaw has found a way to avoid that trap and again tap his instinct for inspiration.
"When I start to write a song now, the first thing I do is pick up the guitar and start singing," he says. "I'll usually have a tape machine going ... and just start doing it. They're all spontaneous; they're like emotional outbursts."
No matter how his sounds change, says Crenshaw, who will turn 50 in November, the goal now is the same one it's always been: expressing emotion for his own sake.
If that part stays intact, he figures, he'll continue to connect with other people.
"I've achieved as much maturity as I'm going to achieve," he says. "I have a good awareness of myself now. I've always done my thing for myself as much as to communicate with other people. I do let out what's inside."