[14 July 2009]
Jaggedland is not only the title of the new Marshall Crenshaw record, it’s a state of mind. Crenshaw says the title best describes his current state of being, but a dip into his back catalog will show that he’s maintained citizenship in the land of all things jagged for years. 2009 will mark the passing of twenty-seven years since the release of his eponymous debut. The record established Crenshaw as a top songsmith well-informed of the music of the ‘50s and ‘60s and gifted with a keen ear for the pop charts of the present day. Infectious hook-laden melody was tempered with a dark edge that painted Crenshaw as an American parallel to Elvis Costello. While both have long been critical darlings, their relationship with the charts has been much more mercurial. Such things may weigh heavily on the accountants of this world, but neither artist has seen any reason to compromise their art for the sake of a quick cash-in. Songs were always paramount. Crenshaw has a number of lucrative songwriting collaborations and has been fortunate to have his material covered by artists as disparate as Robert Gordon and S Club 7, but still remains a devout student of his craft. Ever honing and refining the process, Crenshaw has taken jazz guitar lessons since the early ‘90s. The resulting expansion in his musical vocabulary has found him inflecting his songs with jazzily confident lines and indulging in lush arrangements that are wonderfully uncluttered, yet still harmonically interesting.
Such economy is the backbone of good songwriting, but even the best song can be ruined by poor arrangements and production. There are no such issues here. The lion’s share of Jaggedland was recorded in California with a crew of heavy-hitters from the LA session scene, including trapsman Jim Keltner and bassist Sebastian Steinberg. Initial recordings were made with Stewart Lerman at Crenshaw’s home in upstate NY, but Jerry Boys helmed the board for the California sessions, lending the unobtrusive magic he’s worked on projects like the Buena Vista Social Club. The relationship with Boys seems to have been a fruitful one, but given his background, it’s a small wonder that he and Crenshaw got on like a house on fire. Boys started his career as a tape op at Abbey Road, working on seminal recordings from the Beatles and Pink Floyd. While Crenshaw may not operate on the level of grandeur, there is an unmistakably vibe to Jaggedland. Boys captures a loose live feel that can only come from California. The West Coast experience seems to have taken a wee bit off the normal Crenshaw bristle. While he is far from an angry young man, there is still an obvious fire that burns inside. That said, it would take a much harder man to muster up such old school bile with the liberal dappling of sunshine and vibraphone that colors the tracks. While I’m neither a fan of said vibes nor the slavish knee-jerk obsession with Pet Sounds, it is notable that the legendary Emil Richards mans the mallets here. The result is all-around pretty wonderful, especially on the instrumental title track.
Crenshaw opens the proceedings with a jagged guitar line that morphs suddenly into a lush world of Orbison reverb. While the production has modern presence, Bobby Vinton is name-checked within the first thirty seconds of “Right On Time”, reminding you that you’re dealing with a man who has played Buddy Holly on the silver screen and John Lennon in Beatlemania. Crenshaw seems to be in good spirits and the song craft is as deft as ever; “Just Snap Your Fingers” and “Live and Learn” are some of his best in recent history. Jaggedland shows Crenshaw to be an artist who is more than comfortable in his own skin. Whether rocking in short bursts like “Gasoline Baby” or treading a more contemplative path with quieter fare like “Sunday Blues”, Marshall Crenshaw’s tenure in Jaggedland seems to be a fruitful one.