When journalists write about Detroit-raised guitar-rocker Marshall Crenshaw, they like to roll out the retro analogies. “An Everly brother for the 1980s,” one reviewer wrote upon the release of his 1982 debut album. Buddy Holly”s Back From the Dead, another vintage headline quips.
While it”s true that Crenshaw”s music often pays homage to the backbeat-thumping, disarmingly catchy modes of 1960″s pop, these comparisons feel less like useful insight than some critical ambivalence about where the heck Crenshaw fits in the protean, corporate world of mainstream rock.
But it”s exactly his refusal to concern himself with trendy, of-the-moment classifications that makes Crenshaw”s new album, wryly titled I”ve Suffered For My Art … It”s Your Turn such invigorating, welcome material. Playing a live set of both signature and new songs in New Jersey”s venerable Stone Pony nightclub, Crenshaw is in terrific form on this disc stripped down to one acoustic guitar, a microphone and skillfully restrained backing by New York session mavens Greg Cohen (bass) and Charlie Giordano (accordion).
Crenshaw”s agile hooks and thoughtful songwriting, by turns footloose and melancholic, are generously on display here, and there”s something about the trimmed-down, unplugged production that makes his work even more vital and persuasive. Crenshaw sounds so good in this spare ambience that you have to wonder if the sometimes slick-sounding, production-heavy vibe of his catalog may ultimately have hindered his appeal over the years as much as helped it.
Here, “Cynical Girl,” a facetious, early love song, is re-imagined as a kind of campfire classic complete with infectious “la la”s” and “woo woo”s.”
“Better Back Off,” which made welcome rounds on alternative radio in 1991 is, well, back, this time sounding more honky-tonk and bluegrass we wouldn”t be surprised to hear Del McCoury and his boys join in on the second verse. Only “Someday, Someway,” Crenshaw”s inaugural hit, seems to lose something in its acoustic translation. Originally a fun, bopping number, the track seems a bit leaden and lonely without the singer”s jangly Stratocaster and a real, live rhythm section behind it.
Crenshaw knows that every good set list includes a cover or two and so, sure enough, here are marvelous retellings of Jody Reynolds”s “Endless Sleep” and The Left Banke”s 1966 top-five hit “Walk Away Renee” with Crenshaw”s voice straining like a hymn back to the days of jukeboxes and good old monophonic AM radio.
Marshall Crenshaw”s current tour brings him back home to Ann Arbor”s Ark Wednesday, August 15, and if this latest live record is any indication, the show ought to be a splendid time with and here”s the obligatory retro analogy a good beat you can dance to.