Harboring no illusions and worldly wise: the best of Marshall Crenshaw

Blessed with a voice and songs as clean as his Stratocaster, Marshall Crenshaw has been writing good songs since the early Reagan administration (!) without ever realizing a pay day as a song doctor. Why isn’t he in Nashville? Give Lukes Bryan and Combs a “Til I Hear It From You,” let busbee contemporize it with electro gewgaws, and it’ll sit atop the Hot Country Airplay chart through September.

Eh — who am I kidding? Reliant on the kindness of critics and a coterie of fans who document his live repertoire with the fealty of a Browning Club, Crenshaw’s career used to depend on what I assume were steady sales in the low six figures. What his income looks like in the streaming epoch is known to his accountants. Some of Robert Christgau’s most empathetic writing concerned Crenshaw’s attempt to channel the spirits of the age; an oeuvre that survived the wallop of Steve Lillywhite, the mephitic fumes of early nineties roots rock, and Diane Warren is as, to use a discredited and suspicious descriptor, timeless as rock enthusiasts claim for their idols. I saw him open for Yo La Tengo in a downtown Jacksonville theater in 2003 and he was remarkable plugged and unplugged.

My list leads with “Better Back Off” because of how thickly the guitars are mixed — Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine’s work on Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend were in his rear view mirror; they were fellow travelers amid the boho Manhattan music scene of 1991. It makes sense that Eric Weisbard heard its affinities with early eighties Lou Reed. Among contemporaries only Forster-McLennan and Neil Finn were writing so cogently; only he abjured mush. Opening with the usual jangle, “What Do You Dream Of?” presents a scenario with a crispness the Australians and New Zealander had trouble nailing: “Just last night when we were in bed.” Boom. So I guess you can say I like Life’s Too Short. But I turn to 1989’s Good Evening often — The One With the Diane Warren Song. To embroider a plateful of Michael Bolton drivel with twelve-string curlicues, to make listeners forget “Live It Up” has the Isleys name in the credits — that’s talent. Unlike his contemporaneous musheads, though, Crenshaw believes in bass lines that add counterpoint and drumming commensurate with the volatility of his characters’ sex lives. That’s the price for writing about cynical girls.

1. Better Back Off
2. Cynical Girl
3. Whenever You’re On My Mind
4. You’re My Favorite Waste of Time
5. Radio Girl
6. Someplace Where Love Can’t Find Me
7. Someday, Someway
8. Calling Out for Love (at Crying Time)
9. You Should’ve Been There
10. Try
11. What Do You Dream Of?
12. All I Know Right Now
13. There She Goes Again
14. Something’s Gonna Happen
15. The Usual Thing
16. Our Town
17. The Distance Between
18. On the Run
19. Twenty-Five Forty-One
20. Like a Vague Memory

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