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In 1982, when up-and-coming video stars were trying to look like supermen of suave, Detroit-born singer Marshall Crenshaw came on like a mild-mannered Clark Kent, albeit one with a secret weapon--an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music past and present, which he readily applied to his own work. Shortly after his first professional gig--a two-year stint as John Lennon in a touring cast of Beatlemania--Crenshaw had a Top 40 hit with "Someday, Someway" and a debut album that pictured him with his now-signature horn-rimmed glasses and moved Rolling Stone to proclaim him, if not the Next Big Thing, then "the next necessary thing."
Last year, Crenshaw proved himself a necessity to a new generation of pop fans by collaborating with the Gin Blossoms on the No. 1 hit "Till I Hear It From You," which gave Crenshaw his highest chart ranking to date.
Crenshaw's latest outing, Miracle of Science (Razor & Tie), is his first album of new music in five years, and his first-ever self-produced studio effort. On it, Crenshaw manages to combine the joyous rapture of his earlier recordings with an anxious edginess on tracks like "Only an Hour Ago" and "Laughter," both paeans to love lost and regret for things left unsaid.
"'Laughter' is kind of personal," he begins. "I was thinking about my wife's best friend, who died of AIDS. A lot of our circle of friends from when we lived in New York were gay men who aren't around anymore. It's about nostalgia, melancholia and losing someone really close to you. But I don't get really specific in the lyrics because I didn't want to be heavy-handed about it."
Miracle of Science's offhanded title alludes to the now-taken-for-granted "modern" recording technology which enables multi-instrumentalists like Crenshaw to play nearly everything on most of the tracks. In that light, this is the closest we've come to getting a whole album from "Marshall Crenshaw and the Handsome, Ruthless and Stupid Band," the billing Crenshaw gave himself for "You're My Favorite Waste of Time," a popular home demo Crenshaw recorded in a makeshift sound laboratory in his and his wife Ione's small Pelham, New York, apartment.
Crenshaw says "Waste of Time," which graced the B-side of "Someday, Someway," was cut on the cheap. "That song was recorded with a $30 high-impedance microphone, no equalizer and a couple of stomp boxes for effects," says Crenshaw. "That's as primitive as you can get. The vocal sounds like it's coming over a telephone."
Prior to recording Miracle of Science, Crenshaw had occasion to rummage through boxes of early tapes, and rediscovered some important material like "Starless Summer Sky," the first radio single from the new album.
"A friend of mine asked me to make him a cassette of some of my earliest demos. And I found a lot of stuff I forgot about, like 'Starless Summer Sky,' which I wrote in 1979. And 'Theme From Flaregun' was something I wrote back around the time of my third album. I'm glad those things managed to surface."
Crenshaw's first album, Marshall Crenshaw, topped off at No. 50 on the album charts. Although it seems odd now, the critical goodwill and label support that Crenshaw amassed with his debut all but eroded with the release of his second album, Field Day. The rock pundits who saw a direct link to Buddy Holly in Crenshaw's simple, direct songwriting slammed him for using a modern English rock producer (Steve Lillywhite) who favored a loud drum sound. Suddenly, Crenshaw wasn't their Buddy anymore.
"The reviews of the album really irritated me because I hate it when people presume to know more about what you should do than you know yourself," Crenshaw remarks today. "It's like the critics had it figured out what I was about and what my objectives were or should be and it's bullshit. Because I'm the one to decide. I think that's a wrong approach for a critic to take. It's pretentious."
In hindsight, Crenshaw's choice to work with Lillywhite doesn't seem so outlandish--the producer's work on early XTC and U2 recordings constitutes the most inventive use of echo since Phil Spector's Wall of Sound.
"A lot of people at Warner [Bros.] just hated that record and thought it was some aberration, that I'd lost my mind," says Crenshaw. WEA in London even released an apologetic 12-inch of Field Day remixes in the U.K., known as the Our Town EP.
"That thing's a piece of shit," snaps Crenshaw. "I disavow that. I had no participation in that and it didn't come out anything like I wanted it to. I wanted to do remixes with a guy named Francois Kavorkian, who did a lot of remixes that were psychedelic-sounding. I wanted him to take the tracks further out than Field Day. The guy Warners ultimately got to do it was sort of pushed into taming the sound."
Crenshaw's contemporary pop stature got a long-needed boost when the song he co-wrote with the Gin Blossoms hit big last year.