It's easy for certain artists to get lost in the millennial sprawl of popular music these days. Among the teen-age boy/girl wonders, the machine-gun, Rap-happy antics of countless acts, and the draining morass of Metal Rap posers, there's little room for true Pop craftsmen. Marshall Crenshaw, one such artist, has been one of Pop's more modest but skilled songwriters of the last 20 years.
Supporting his first-ever retrospective, This Is Easy: The Best of Marshall Crenshaw, he plays a solo acoustic show at the Southgate House on Saturday. This is his first visit to the Tristate area in many years, so this should be a special night for all involved.
Often Crenshaw's name can't even be mentioned without cross-referencing it with the twin muses of Buddy Holly and The Beatles. Heavily influenced by the '60s British Invasion, his music retains that era's best trademarks: the bright, ringing melodies mixed with reverb-soaked vocals that bob their way between classic hooks.
In our phone conversation from his New York-based home, Crenshaw says the '60s comparisons don't bother him.
"That's just who I am," he says. "I still even play those records for my kids. In fact, I just pulled out my all-time favorite, Bo Diddley's All Time Greats, for my son and it still sounds as fresh as it ever did."
With at least a dozen records to his credit, Crenshaw has always been prolific, even if his '90s output hasn't received the attention that his '80s work did. When Rhino Records approached him last year about doing a career retrospective, he "was flattered to say the least.
Rhino handled most of the project, from choosing the tracks to designing the inside bio sketch. Crenshaw contributed song-by-song liner notes, detailing his inspirations in a candid, witty way. Named after one of his included songs, the title, This Is Easy, is probably a bit ironic; after all, keeping a 20-year career in music alive is never easy. But his music has always contained a joyful ease that flows from song to song. You can hear this in the stutter step energy of "Someday Someway" to the Rockabilly strut behind "Little Wild Child (No.5)."
His best tracks shine with the youthful abandon of great Rock & Roll; there's no denying it. After all, this roots back to a man who cut his teeth in the '70s playing John Lennon in the touring production of Beatlemania. Later he took a supporting role in the movie La Bamba as Buddy Holly. But he's always brought his own sensibility to this brand of spare, graceful music. As he says, "There's a cohesion to what I do. When all the elements lock together, lyrics and chords, I can feel it."
There has been a progression in his work, and this becomes more evident when you check out the recent songs on this collection. Pieces like "Starless Summer Sky" and "What Do You Dream Of?," both from the recent Miracle of Science, show the mature reflection of a man looking back on romance.
"There's a sensuousness in these songs," Crenshaw says. "It's as if there's a kind of secret life buried beneath the disc's grooves, as a man wonders what his wife dreams of at night. Does he matter in her nocturnal world? Do her dreams include him?"
Crenshaw writes in the liner notes of "Starless Summer Sky" that it was written in 1979, but recorded in 1995. "I can sing a lot better now than I could then," he writes.
This confidence glows beneath the surface of This is Easy. Accounting for the differences between the early days and now, he admits, "I gain and lose things along the way, like youthful enthusiasm is replaced by something else. But I think my skills are better now overall."
With the new song textures on his last studio release, #447, he's taking more risks than ever. Crenshaw has always been a bit of a studio whiz, and has often enjoyed being the maestro, so to speak, when recording. He's long admired musicians like Stevie Wonder or Todd Rundgren for their ability to do it all by themselves. And on a few of this collection's songs, such as "You're My Favorite Waste of Time," Crenshaw recorded them unaccompanied.
That control impulse has probably led to his first solo tour. Though an acoustic guitar might limit some potentially rocking moments during a performance, it allows for more subtle if stripped down interpretations of some of his older work. Even so, he says, "My set is still about 60/40 geared towards newer material."
All in all, this millennial year has been a rejuvenating boost for Crenshaw.
"I'm on a good luck streak this year with everything going on," he says. His classic song, "Someday Someway," has been used on TV's new network show, Ed, and also on a TV show for kids called S Club 7. This renewal continues with the unplugged tour.
This Is Easy provides a fitting reappraisal of Crenshaw's career for fans, and yet at the same time offers easy access to his best material for more casual listeners. As Crenshaw says, "Unless you're the Beatles or maybe a few others, there's going to be filler on most Rock albums. But this takes my best moments and puts them together."
For many bands, greatest hit compilations are often a stopgap between studio releases or a way of stalling for more time. However, that's not quite the case here; for This Is Easy: The Best of Marshall Crenshaw covers new territory in the sense that it offers fresh perspectives on the music of this fine, underappreciated songwriter.
MARSHALL CRENSHAW plays the Southgate House on Saturday with Rob Fetters.