Unsung Hero

Charles Taylor reviews Marshall Crenshaw's album "Miracle of Science".

Published July 29, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Anyone who's caught Marshall Crenshaw's live shows over the years
knows two things: One, he's a world-class smartass, and two, he loves,
loves, loves cover versions. He doesn't let his wisecracks get in the way
of the covers, however. Crenshaw acknowledges that it's funny to hear a guy
like him doing ABBA's "Knowing Me, Knowing You" (which was on his 1995
release "My Truck is My Home...Live") or Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the
Reaper" (which he has yet to record, dammit), and then goes on to play them
straight, as if to say, "These aren't just things you got sick of hearing
on the radio, you know. They're really great songs."

So when Crenshaw covers Dobie Gray's "The 'In' Crowd" on "Miracle of
Science," his first album of new material in five years, it's easy to hear
it as just another tune Crenshaw always wanted to do and not as the
casual career summation that it is. As a proclamation of with-it-ness,
"The 'In' Crowd," with its talk about "a spot where the beat's really hot,"
was a pop relic not long after it hit. But Crenshaw's version packs in even
more irony than Bryan Ferry's lounge-lizard stroll through the song on
"Another Time, Another Place."

Is there any rocker less in with the in-crowd than Marshall Crenshaw?
Crenshaw sings as someone who's confronted the realization that he's
never going to be a star and has decided, "What the hell? Time to get on
with things." Sixteen years and 10 albums into his career, he knows there's
an irony in the idea that someone who has dedicated himself to classic
mainstream pop songcraft hasn't been able to crack the mainstream, but
there's no bitterness or superiority in his approach. Crenshaw's version of
"The 'In' Crowd" is as laid-back and bemused as a boomer flipping through
an issue of Spin at Wal-Mart. He has stayed true to the pop of the '50s and
'60s not out of a purist's crankiness or disdain for current pop styles,
but because he knows what looks best on him. Or, as his most consistent and
articulate supporter, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, once wrote,
"No matter how genuine your commitment to the present, you can look pretty
stupid adjusting to fashion."

Crenshaw doesn't have the spooky/moody obsessiveness of fellow
retro-head Chris Isaak (which is precisely the thing that keeps Isaak's
music from being comfortably smoothed over). But for all its tunefulness,
"Miracle of Science" isn't exactly filled with happy little pop songs. The
lovely "What Do You Dream Of?", "Laughter" and Crenshaw's cover of
Grant Hart's "2541" (which was also covered last year on former Go Between
Robert Forster's "I Had a New York Girlfriend") are brilliant translations
of pop's adolescent dreaminess into the contingencies and uncertainties of

In adolescent pop, the singer usually fantasizes that all his dreams
will come true once he's lying next to his beloved. But Crenshaw sings,
"What do you dream of/when you're lying next to me?" and even without the
ambiguity of that verb, there's an implied distance from his lover. Things
get even darker on "Laughter," where the chiming guitar lines keep turning
into snaky ones, dragging Crenshaw's vocal attempts at flight back down
to earth. "It's almost dawn/and everything's wrong," Crenshaw sings,
dispelling any hope that there's going to be an easy solution, before
facing up to his worst fear: "I'm afraid that I'm going to find/That the
memory of your laughter will never leave my mind."

Crenshaw isn't a confessional performer. He'd never violate craft for
that sort of rawness. That doesn't mean, though, that his music is
underfelt. Most of us tend to assume that, with the exception of hacks like
Diane Warren, professional pop songwriting went away with the Brill
Building. But there's no reason to think that Crenshaw couldn't be one of
the songwriters who serves the contemporary pop world in the way show
composers served the pop and jazz singers of an earlier era. Listening to
Crenshaw's "A Wondrous Place," you can imagine Des'ree singing the hell out
of it. And I may be nuts, but "There and Back Again" sounds, to my ears at
least, like a natural for Freddy Fender.

It's "There and Back Again," the album's closer, that offers Crenshaw's
most forthright assessment of where he is now. "I'd rather go again," he
sings, "take it from one who's been/there and back again." He sounds like a
man who's accepted that he's never going to be the next big thing, but who
realizes that he's stayed true to himself and to a pop lexicon he's never
fallen out of love with. To be able to do that for 16 years ain't hay.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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