Marshall Crenshaw: Miracle of Science

Expanded reissue of Crenshaw’s impressive, self-produced 1996 return to the studio

After five albums for Warner Brothers and one for MCA, this 1996 release marked five years since Crenshaw’s previous studio album, and broadened his new relationship with the indie label Razor & Tie. More importantly, the production stripped away the overwrought Steve Lilywhite-helmed sonics of Field Day and the extensive guest lists of Downtown and Good Evening, and centered on the considerable, innate charms of Crenshaw’s songs, voice and guitar. That transformation began to show with the trio playing of 1991’s Life’s Too Short, but with the guitar-rich live album My Truck is My Home, and again with this first self-produced studio effort, Crenshaw washed away the aural sheen of the 1980s, and brought the spotlight back to the richness of his pop craft.

From the hopeful longing of the opening “What Do You Dream Of,” the album offers hummable melodies, warm harmonies, catchy lyrical hooks, and perhaps most thankfully, studio production that supports rather than preens. Crenshaw is able to sing without straining to be heard, returning his voice to its m\wheelhouse. He sounds enthused to be in the studio with a new batch of original, co-written and coover material, and he alternates between mixing it up with guests and pitching in one-man-band-style on guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, percussion and vibraphone. By producing himself, he no longer served as a canvas upon which others cast their own shades, and his aim is as true as Richard Gottehrer’s work on Crenshaw’s 1982 eponymous debut.

Crenshaw had grown artistically in the fourteen years since Marshall Crenshaw, and this album isn’t a repeat of, or even really a throwback to his earlier work; but there is a connection to the nostalgic sounds of his earlier work than hadn’t been captured on the albums in between. The Shadows-styled guitar instrumental “Theme From Flaregun” offers a faux 1960s TV-theme, and Hy Heath’s up-tempo country-rock “Who Stole That Train” includes scorching electric guitar, energetic drumming and dobro from Greg Leisz that add muscle and buzz to the honky-tonk soul of Ray Price’s 1953 rendering. Several of Crenshaw’s originals are laced with bittersweetness as he contemplates the uncertain possibilities of “Only an Hour Ago” and lonely memories of “Laughter,” and the dissolution of Grant Hart’s “Twenty Five Forty One” is buoyed by terrific electric guitar figures.

“There and Back Again” may be the album’s most emotionally powerful moment, as Crenshaw wistfully remembers the joy of romantic discovery through the lens of its eventual end. More fully satisfied is a cover of  “A Wondrous Place,” with vibraphone and a Latin beat expanding upon Jimmy Jones’ and Billy Fury’s 1960 takes. Having gained ownership of his Razor & Tie catalog, Crenshaw is planning to reissue all five of its albums in expanded editions. This first effort includes a reordered track list alongside three bonus tracks that quizically include a backward rendering of “Seven Miles an Hour,” and new recordings of Daniel Wylie’s haunting “Misty Dreamer” and Michael Pagliaro’s 1975 single “What the Hell I Got.” The latter, a memorable song that was a minor hit in Canada, must have beamed across the border to Crenshaw’s native Detroit to make its long-lasting impression.

One might assume that the lack of major label marketing muscle doomed his album to its relative obscurity; but given that neither Warner Brothers nor MCA had much more success in promoting Crenshaw to a wide audience, it was likely the same disconnect between his artistry and the times that had plagued the commercial prospects of his earlier work. Which is a shame, because this album evidences Crenshaw’s talent, charm and vision more plainly than his earlier work. Those who lost track of Crenshaw during his major label run are highly recommended to this album as a place to reengage, and fans who’d already discovered this title will be interested in both the bonus tracks, and the tinkering Crenshaw has performed on “Twenty-Five Forty-One,” “Only an Hour Ago” and “There and Back Again.” A great start to Crenshaw’s reissue project! [©2020 Hyperbolium]

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