Still got "it": Crenshaw's 20-year itch

If you are like me, you have had more late night conversations revolving around the statement “Generally speaking, meaningful pop musicians just lose it after a few years of productivity,” than you’ve had birthdays (and by “pop,” I mean “popular,” as in rock/folk/pop/R&B, etc.).
The “it,” of course, refers to that which can’t be described, that nebulous aligning of the stars and planets, of practice, hard work, and maybe the right cocktail of intoxication (of any kind) that turns a great musician into what lies beyond. Few musicians ever get “it,” but those who do seem to feel the warm bath of knowledge’s light only for a short period of time.
Singer/songwriter Marshall Crenshaw will be playing Starr Hill on May 21, and as I own copies of his latest 1999 release, #447, and his self-titled 1982 debut, I thought it might be an interesting study to compare the two with the concept of “it,” and “losing it” subtly dwelling in the back of my mind. For this experiment I will look at each album’s big single in an attempt to rein in the sample size and make it easier for yours truly.
When it was released, Crenshaw’s self-titled debut was hailed by critics as the next big thing, and though it did make a respectable climb up the Billboard charts of that year, it did not exactly set the world ablaze.
Listening to “Someday Someway” from that album now, its timeless nature is apparent– although something of the early ‘80s musical climate clings to the track. “I can’t stand to see you sad, I can’t bear to hear you cry,” Crenshaw sings with a melody so simple it spans only four notes.
The track sounds great, even all these years later, which has surely something to do with Crenshaw’s songwriting style– imagine Buddy Holly, time-warped into the early ‘80s New Wave scene, and you have a pretty good idea of what’s going on with Crenshaw’s muse.
Of course, the first thing that strikes you when you put on “Television Light,” the first single off #447, is the innovation in recording technology in the last 20 years, but even making room for the jump in production value, the track still pulses with the energy of Crenshaw the Younger.
Some of the elements that made his debut stand out are missing– gone is the superbly textured ‘50s echo, and the instrumentation, along with the songwriting, have both taken a quantum leaps forward in complexity. But what was truly endearing about Crenshaw then is still found in spades on #447– an emphasis on a catchy, strong melody.
The fact of the matter is, whatever the “it” Crenshaw had on his 1982 debut album, it can still be heard almost 20 years later on #447– meaning, young scientists, that you should get your lab-coated selves down to Starr Hill and check out what 20 years of “it” means to a set list.

Marshall Crenshaw performs with David Sickmen at Starr Hill May 21. $15, 9pm.

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