You have to admire Marshall Crenshaw for his durability if nothing else. He's been cranking out radio-ready pop for two decades and has managed to score exactly zero commercial hits. This fact is a continuing affront to a large band of rock critics, who have hailed him as the second coming of Buddy Holly since the release of his eponymous debut in 1981. (The album received four and a half stars from Rolling Stone, and this was in the era before absurd grade inflation.) It's fair to say, then, that Crenshaw is not exactly a household name. This pair of retrospectives probably won't change that. But it is a splendid introduction to Crenshaw's hook-laden oeuvre.
Marshall Crenshaw is one of those souped-up rereleases, including the original album plus a bunch of demos and live tracks. Don't look for any fancy instrumentation here. Crenshaw specializes in basic guitar/bass/drums rock with a few choice harmonies thrown in. Part of the reason Crenshaw never quite caught on with the masses is that he eschews the gimmicks of a specific era -- the synth washes of new wave, say, or the drubbing guitars of grunge. But this stripped-down approach is also what lends his songs a timeless quality. When you hear tunes such as "Someday, Someway" or "Mary Anne" or "Soldier of Love," you'd just swear that you've heard them somewhere before. The spare arrangements also show off Crenshaw's voice, a crystalline tenor that combines Buddy Holly's exuberance with John Lennon's vulnerability. (With his owlish glasses and stiff pompadour, he certainly looks the part of an old-school rock star.)
Most of the outtakes on the new Marshall Crenshaw are fairly forgettable. But the live cuts -- covers of the soul artists Crenshaw listened to as a kid growing up in Detroit -- are worth the price of admission all by themselves. It's a hoot to listen to him and his scrappy little three-piece tear through Smokey Robinson's "I've Been Good to You."
This Is Easy! includes the best songs from the debut, plus 18 additional tracks that span six subsequent discs. Not that Crenshaw has evolved much through the years. With the exception of his latest new release, the breathtaking #447, he's still making the same catchy three-minute gems. Then again, if the formula works, why mess with it? From the infectious spunk of "Little Wild One (No. 5)" to the white-boy lament of "Somebody Crying" to the cutesy swagger of "Better Back Off," this platter is heaven for the pure-pop fan. Crenshaw's excellent taste in covers is again on display. He does a bang-up job with John Hiatt's "Someplace Where Love Can't Find Me" and vamps his way through Ben Vaughn's "I'm Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)."
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It would be hard to argue that Crenshaw deserves a place alongside the legends of rock. His range is simply too narrow. But as a popsmith, Crenshaw is a brilliant minor figure, a guy whose songs will be around long after he's gone the way of the dinosaurs.