Singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw doesn't seem concerned about the future. He's not sure whether he's still contracted to the New York independent label for which he recorded most of his '90s albums. He's not sure when he will start writing new songs, and he's equivocal about working with a band again, if only because he enjoys performing solo. And Crenshaw, a consummate craftsman whose chronically underrated work ranks with the best pop of the last 20 years, is OK with not knowing what tomorrow will bring.
"I'm generally proud of my abilities and accomplishments," Crenshaw says via phone from his Brooklyn home. "I do sort of approach writing as a craft. There are a lot of different things I try to express in the songs I write. I always like to have the elements complement each other, and I really sweat over the details. Always, you know? Especially with the lyric writing, just to make sure the words work in a sort of rhythmic and musical way, as well as in terms of storytelling."
How deftly music and words align in Crenshaw's work is abundantly clear no matter the record -- or at least, no matter the love song. Whether it's the deliciously rueful, Latin-tinged "Dime a Dozen Guy" from last year's experimental, largely successful #447, the fierce rockabilly "Little Wild One (No. 5)" from 1985's Downtown, or the Buddy Hollyish "Cynical Girl" from his great 1982 debut, the lyrics flow as easily as the music.
This 46-year-old Detroit native made his first musical mark playing John Lennon in a touring version of "Beatlemania." He assumed his own pop identity in New York clubs in the late '70s, working with his brother, Robert, on drums and Chris Donato on bass. In 1982 Warner Bros. released Marshall Crenshaw. Produced by the great Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, the Go-Go's, the Angels), it ranks with the Cars' glistening 1978 debut as a pop template.
While "Someday, Someway," the first single from Marshall Crenshaw, reached the Top 40, the album didn't sell as it should have, only hitting the No. 50 spot on the charts. Whether that was due to lack of promotion or being out of step with the prevailing trends may never be known -- the late '80s, after all, signaled the simultaneous rise of heavy metal and the desiccation of new wave. Some Warner Bros. albums were produced with too heavy a hand; others suffered from quirky sequencing or lack of an instantly marketable hit. In any case, Crenshaw's songs, as pure as pop gets, never caught on the way they should have.
Between records, Crenshaw produced a hillbilly music compilation for Capitol Records, acted in Peggy Sue Got Married and La Bamba (he played Holly to Lou Diamond Phillips's Ritchie Valens), wrote songs for Bette Midler and the Gin Blossoms, and composed a soundtrack for a PBS documentary on Yogi Berra.
On the recording side, Crenshaw persevered, exhausting his contract with Warner Bros. in 1990, then briefly recording for MCA before landing on Razor & Tie in the mid-'90s. One of his later albums, Miracle of Science, ranks with his best. Not only does the 1996 disc boast great originals in "What Do You Dream Of?" and "Starless Summer Sky," but it also has a brilliant cover of Dobie Gray's "The In Crowd." Like his other records, it blends easy, seemingly inevitable pop melodies with a bluesy lipcurl and rhythmic confidence. Like last year's #447, it also features several svelte instrumentals.
"Right now, I'm sort of coasting," Crenshaw admits. "I've been playing a lot of gigs, like maybe 150 last year -- the most I've done in ages. I started doing them all by myself, and I found that it was pretty simple to get around; in fact, it's simplicity itself."
He began working solo this spring, when the owner of the Van Dyck, a former jazz club in Schenectady, New York, requested a Crenshaw solo date. "When I got the call, I thought, if I spent some time preparing for it, I could do it," Crenshaw says. "I thought, this time around, I'd accept the challenge. It was a matter of deciding to prepare, to come up with arrangements of my songs that would work that way. I did it and like it a lot."
The gigs multiplied, notably this summer, when Rhino released The Best of Marshall Crenshaw: This Is Easy, which leans heavily on his Warner Bros. material. Rhino simultaneously rereleased a greatly expanded version of Marshall Crenshaw. The double whammy put Crenshaw in the odd position of being an oldies act. But in sensibility, at least, this guy is far from being a candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, even if his work is nearing the 25-year track record required for admission.
For now, Crenshaw isn't worried about adding to his canon. "I haven't written anything in a while," he says. "The last time was in July, when I went to Stockholm and wrote a couple of songs with a producer named Peter Kvint." They have been recorded by a "teen-pop act in Scandinavia. These aren't songs I would do. Every once in a while, I do these co-write things. They're kind of day jobs."
The sweet-voiced Crenshaw, a gifted guitarist who solos all too rarely, isn't "interested in making a record right now," adding that he thinks he owes Razor & Tie another album. (The label didn't seem that clear either, publicists there indicated.)
"I'll want to do one at some point," Crenshaw says. "That time has not come."
For now, Crenshaw is honing his performing craft behind his remarkable, criminally underheard repertoire. He's looking to break into film, too; though a Disney animation project for which he was writing the soundtrack came to naught, its failure has only whetted his appetite for such work. Survival, meanwhile, isn't an issue. Not only did "Someday, Someway" figure in a recent episode of the TV sitcom Ed; the British pop group S Club 7 covered it last year, so "there's a little bag of money waiting for me down the road," he says.
"I thought it was kind of cool. It's a 20-year-old song, but it just sort of popped up in these interesting places."
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