Saturday, April 30, 2011

"On the Run" / Marshall Crenshaw

Do y'all really need me to give you the set list from last night's show?  Because -- duh -- it was the same as the track list from Marshall Crenshaw, and you do own that album, don't you? (If not, click on the link and buy it through Amazon; I'll earn a nickel or so in commission. I have to do something to support this habit of mine!)

Okay, there were a few other songs.  If all he'd played was the album, it would have lasted about 30 minutes, because -- in the hallowed tradition of perfect radio pop -- there isn't a song on the LP that's longer than 3:06.  So he added a few early compositions, a cover or two, and some non-album gems from the period such as "Whenever You're On My Mind," "Something's Gonna Happen," and "You're My Favorite Waste of Time" (only because our table kept rudely hollering for it).

And if you really want to know, Marshall messed up the track order by playing "Girls" second instead of "Someday, Someway" (for which he sheepishly apologized). That alone should tell you what a slickness-free zone this show was in. He even let his brother Robert -- who reprised his role on drums for the first time in 30 years -- sing "She Can't Dance," which was a nice change of pace. I love Robert's voice too. 

Naturally it was an incredible show, one of the best I've ever been to.  There was Graham Maby doing bass and harmonies, Ira Kaplan (of Yo La Tengo) covering guitar duties, and, along with Robert, Josh DeLeon on drums, as well as another Crenshaw brother, John, contributing assorted other percussion.  Of course their parents were in the audience too. Why not?

Instead of an opening act, a loop of early MC videos was projected onto a movie screen. Was anybody ever so adorable as 1982 Marshall Crenshaw?  Okay, maybe Paul McCartney in 1963. Maybe.  Anyhoo, that's where I got the inspiration for today's post -- one of the videos featured this song from Marshall's 1989 album, Good Evening. (You could click again if you were so inclined.  Good Evening is an extraordinary album that you just may not already own.)  My tablemates and I agreed that it is a severely underrated song, even amid the severely underrated totality of Marshall Crenshaw's catalog, so I decided I just had to share it with you all today.

As I have already gone on at length -- and I have to go wash my hair for tonight's second show in this Winery celebration -- I'll just add a few remarks.

1. Those surging opening chords are so Big Star, aren't they?  This is a song opening that demands you pay attention -- and I always do.

2. I love driving songs.  Despite the fact that this title is "On the Run," not "Drive," this is a driving song. He's "on the run," but references to white lines on the pavement tell you that he's doing it by car -- as if you couldn't already tell by the gear-shifting chord progressions.

3. One of my tablemates, a guy I'd just met, couldn't get over what a great guitarist Marshall is.  "Why does nobody ever mention this?" he wondered, awestruck.  I agree, and so I'm mentioning it.  Just listen to the sizzling guitar in the bridge.

4. Put this song together with "There She Goes Again" and you'd have "Dime a Dozen Guy," another of my all-time favorite MC tracks.  Just sayin'. . . .

5. Should not this song have been used in about a million soundtracks by now?  It is so evocative, so late-night and urban and emotionally turbulent.  When will the guys who pick songs for soundtracks wake up?  (I would be so good at that job, don't you think?)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

"You're My Favorite Waste of Time" / Marshall Crenshaw

I no longer know whether these tracks were big hits or not.  That's one of the things I love about Marshall Crenshaw -- so many of his songs sound like instant classics, with dreamy hooks and irresistible melodies, and now they're so grooved in my memory, I could swear they're jukebox staples.  (As a fellow Crenshaw fan once put it -- "His songs have a hook for the verse, a hook for the chorus, and another hook for the bridge.") 

So knowing this song so well (it's included as a bonus track on the reissued CD of Marshall's debut album, Marshall Crenshaw), I've sorta forgotten that it wasn't on the original vinyl.  I had to pore over the liner notes to clarify that it was in fact the B-side of Marshall's 1982 single "Someday, Someway," a single which I never owned. (In 1982 I was strictly an album buyer; who knew he had spare tracks that didn't make it onto that LP?). 

The liner notes also tell me that this was recorded by Marshall Crenshaw and the Handsome, Ruthless, and Stupid Band -- Marshall's way of explaining that it was a home demo in which he played all the instruments and sang his own back-up vocals.  A one-man wall of sound, if you will.

But now listen to this track, folks, and tell me -- doesn't it just pour out of some vein of pure pop inspiration?  Whereas "Someday, Someway" is boppy, taut, and urgent, turn over the 45 and you get another side of Crenshaw, all jazzy shimmer. The guy on Side 1 is in a hurry, flustered and strung out by his perplexing girlfriend; Side 2's guy has all the time in the world, and he's happy to waste it on her.

He says it himself -- he's a "daydreamin' fool," "got my head in the clouds above." I love how those harmonies unfold, spilling over like a waterfall. The word "my" alone gets five separate notes and eight beats, before he sashays into the syncopated syllables "fav-rite waste of time." 

The standard line on Marshall Crenshaw is that he's all about power pop, and a particularly retro style at that.  Yes, he can pay tribute to Buddy Holly and Bobby Fuller, but the soul/jazz side of him is just as significant, and it's interesting to see it was here this early. This song is no tight three verses and a chorus, but a stream of consciousness musing; the verses don't even rhyme, and they sure don't tell a story.  He's just in his happy zone, and he's taking us there with him.

My favorite line?  "I don't care / If being with you is meaningless / And ridiculous." (Okay, maybe you could say that's a rhyme.)  Forget flowery cliches; he's not pretending this relationship is anything noble or redeeming. It. Just. Is. And if that isn't how love feels from the inside, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Eventually" / Marshall Crenshaw

This weekend, Marshall Crenshaw's doing three shows on three successive nights at the City Winery, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of his first single, "Something's Gonna Happen."  I just happen to have tickets for all three nights, being of the firm opinion that you can never have enough Marshall Crenshaw. And since I can't make the weekend come any sooner, I thought I'd count down the days with a little Marshall Crenshaw Week here. (Yeah, I know, daily blogging hasn't been my forte lately -- but for Marshall I'll give it a go.)

The Friday night show, as I understand it, is going to be a special treat:  Marshall's going to play his entire 1982 debut album, Marshall Crenshaw. You know that album -- it's loaded with sublimely catchy tracks like "Someday, Someway" and "There She Goes Again" and "The Usual Thing" and "Rocking Around in NYC" and "Cynical Girl."  I can't wait to hear that line-up of songs; it's the best youth potion I can think of. I defy the City Winery crowd to stay in their seats.

What I'm hoping, though, is that this anniversary celebration stirs up all those original fans to re-discover what Marshall's doing now.  Because, frankly, it's some of the best music out there, incredibly smart and passionate and mature.  So before I take that Way Back Machine down memory lane, let's listen first to some 21st-century Marshall Crenshaw.  This song is from his 2009 album Jaggedland, in my opinion one of the greatest and most underrated albums of the past decade. . . .

Listening to "Eventually," I realize that the melodic hookiness of Marshall Crenshaw's music tends to make folks overlook their intelligence.  After a while, an artist grows tired of writing love songs (especially a guy like Marshall who's been happily married for years -- it's pretty hard to wring out teenage romantic angst year after year).  Jaggedland solves that problem by turning instead to existential pondering. If that sounds pompous and boring, believe me, Marshall makes it work.  Not only does he brood on life's big questions, he has enough sense not to pretend he's solved them.  That's maturity for you.

And now here's another treat which I just found on YouTube, also from Jaggedland.  I don't know who made this video but it's a priceless pairing of film with song -- enjoy!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

"Mr. Rabbit" / Paul Westerberg


Sometimes I get things backwards.  Thanks to Nick Hornby, I started listening to Paul Westerberg way before I ever started listening to his former band, The Replacements. Now, I dig the Replacements' sloppy garage punk-pop, but I'm still fonder of Westerberg's low-fi solo stuff.

This comes from his 2002 CD Stereo, which he claims he mostly made in his basement in suburban Minneapolis (Edina, if you want to be specific -- now don't go stalking him!). For all I know, Westerberg's basement has a gleaming state-of-the-art recording studio built in it, but I tend to picture it as the basement rec room of my childhood home in Indianapolis, cheap pine paneling, linoleum floor, lumpy sofa and all.

And this track sounds like it was recorded in his basement, but that's what I like about it -- it's just an electric guitar and drums (could even be a drum machine for all I know), with one repeated circular riff that does double duty as a bass line.  And some days,  after this has come up on my shuffle that riff spools over and over in my head for hours.

It's not even a Westerberg original -- apparently Burl Ives (of all people) recorded this years ago.  Could be something Westerberg's family listened to when he was a kid, which he started playing for his own kid, eventually adding more slouchy syncopation and delivering it in his trademark raspy snarl.

Still, I love this track.  It was the first thing I thought of this morning when I woke up, and I sang it to myself as I did my own Easter Bunny duty, filling baskets with plastic grass and foil-wrapped chocolate and jelly beans.  (And yes, my kids are too old to believe in the Easter Bunny but they still expect Easter baskets.)

So here it is, my Easter gift to you.  Forget all the alleluias and Easter hymns from church; this is the refrain that's lifting my spirits today: "Every little soul must shi-i-ine, / Every little soul must shine...."

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Anybody else tired of April showers?  Better turn the music up loud.

1. Addicted to Love / Robert Palmer

 From Riptide (1985)
From the very first beats on those whomping drums, I start to grin despite myself.  "The lights are on, but you're not home / Your mind is not your own... One of the classic MTV videos, with sultry scarlet-lipped models gyrating and strumming guitars, and Palmer in a devastatingly well-cut gray suit.  That mesmerizing rhythm line drove this song straight to #1; a great 80s throwback.   

2. Every Planet We Reach Is Dead / Gorillaz
From Demon Days (2006)
Damon Albarn gets his funk on.  The comic-book element of this project is lost on me, but I sure do dig their sound -- electronica that manages NOT to be tedious or repetitive. It can be done!  

3. Uncorrected Personality Traits / Robyn Hitchcock
From I Often Dream of Trains (1984)
A cappella psycho-babble whimsy from the delectable Mr. H.  One of the funniest songs ever.

4. I Was Watching You / Rosanne Cash 
From Black Cadillac (2006)
Rosanne's album-length elegy for her parents -- who just happened to be Johnny Cash and June Carter -- is pretty good proof that talent is genetic.

5. Some Other Guy / The Searchers
From Sugar and Spice (1963)
I think Johnny Kidd and the Pirates (remember them?  no, me neither) recorded the original hit single of this snappy little Lieber-Stoller teen love song, but every British Beat band did a cover of it; there's grainy film somewhere of the Beatles singing it at the Cavern Club. For my money, though, the best is the Searchers, with the extra zing of their guitars.      

6. I Bet You Won't Stay / The Cascades
(1965 single)
Sorry, no link for this one -- an obscure pop single which I have in bootleg only because Ray Davies wrote it.  And you thought the Cascades' only song was "Rhythm of the Rain"? In fact they recorded a couple of Ray's early songs, when he was still hedging his bets with a little freelance songwriting. Oddly jazzy, with a jangly electric piano and tons of reverb -- they do perfect justice to the wistful neurosis of this song.

7. Another First Kiss / They Might Be Giants
From Mink Car (2001)
There's always a daffy angle to every TMBG song, but they can also do earnest surprisingly well. Of course there can only be one first kiss -- but that won't stop the ever-winsome John Linnell from trying.

8. Vanity Press / Graham Parker & the Figgs 
From Songs of No Consequence (2005)
The object of today's high-energy satire: unscrupulous journalists, for whom Graham Parker seems to have reserved a special circle of hell.  Clever lyrics fly thick and fast; you gotta listen close to get every flash of wit. But never fear, GP still packs in a killer hook in the chorus. 

9. Die Die Die / The Avett Brothers
From Emotionalism (2007)
I love these guys, with their hoarsely sweet folky harmonies, plucky banjo, and soaring melodies. This earlier album, before their "breakthrough" I and Love and You, proves that they've got the chops to be around for a while.

10.  Without Love / Nick Lowe
From Labour of Lust (1979)
Sigh...I know I've written about this song before.  But now that Labour of Lust's been reissued, it's on my daily playlist all over again. "Without love, I am an island / All alone, in a heartbreak sea...."