Marshall Crenshaw has aged quietly and gracefully. In an unassuming manner, he has gone about his business, both touring and in the studio, making distinctive music that may not have the same wide commercial pop appeal of his earlier songs. Rather, the current music reflects who he is and what he’s become: a skilled singer/songwriter and a very fine guitarist. Hard to believe that it’s been a quarter century since his eponymous debut arrived on the scene with an upbeat downtown energy and gems like “Someday Someway” and “Cynical Girl”, but Crenshaw is none the worse for the wear.
With What’s in the Bag?, Crenshaw provides ample evidence that the years haven’t changed that familiar voice, while his guitar work displays more grace and finesse, exuding noticeable jazz and R&B influences. These 11 tunes are gentle and eloquent, the works of a man aware of his skills, comfortable with the tales he has to tell the world in song.
The moody and spare “Will We Ever?” opens this CD, the tale of a weary traveler longing to be home and back with his love. Greg Leisz’ haunting pedal steel accents perfectly capture the feelings of this lonely night and the musical question “will we ever love again?”
My favorite here is Crenshaw’s poignant post-9/11 tribute to his memories of downtown NYC, the beautiful “Where Home Used to Be”. In the framework of a man revisiting where fond memories of his past were formed, Crenshaw’s guitar and voice manage this emotional reminiscence to perfection: “Familiar shadows remain, but they are all that’s unchanged / Because this whole street seems haunted now, and the atmosphere is still and strange / We didn’t worry ’bout much, we never had a spare dime / This is where home used to be in a different time / I know it’s hard to believe, so much has turned to dust / But this is where home used to be, and it was good to us, more than good to us”. Jane Scarpantonio’s cello aids this lovely memorial and prayer for a better day.
Crenshaw serves up two covers, to mixed effect. Prince’s “Take Me with U” gets the full Crenshaw treatment (Marshall makes it very much his own), featuring fun guitar work and handclaps from the likes of Andy York and Eric Ambel, along with sweet harmonies from Mary Lee Kortes. The cover of Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be with You” is a noble attempt, but is ultimately less successful. It features a busy arrangement with wonderful R&B guitar lines, but somehow the vocals fail to capture the requisite funk.
Crenshaw does a better job of singing the blues with his own “Alone in a Room”. This jazzy love song frames emotive vocals wherein Chapman captures a sultry, languorous mood: The sunlight on the violet wall / The radio playing down the hall / Believe these words I’m whispering / You’re such a warm delicious thing / And now, right now, love’s in bloom / Right now, it’s all about you and me alone in a room”.
Laughing at ill fate is the theme behind “From Now Until Then”, addressing the trials of fire and quiet desperation we all face each day while “trying to make it to the end”. “Long And Complicated” is about a love that continues on to the altar, beyond many plans to end it, as this woman’s smile and sad eyes get the better of his heart, forevermore. “The Spell Is Broken” is another fine tune to be added to the grand Crenshaw canon, featuring impressive percussion work from Diego Voglino. This is a memory of a love once true that now belongs to yesterday, doubt replacing surety, as the spell is broken.
“A Thousand Days Ago” is a pretty, atmospheric piece, an ode to solace in traveling through the wide unknown: “Through lost empty towns / Across miles of burning desert sands / And fields of green and gold / I began to feel and understand / The wonders great and small that this world has to show / Like the promise in a new sunrise / A few thousand days ago”.
While Crenshaw’s vocals are pleasant as ever, the pure musical numbers here are powerful statements. In the past, he’s been quoted as saying that sometimes adding lyrics can limit a song. You get the sense that Crenshaw’s truly at home when it comes to “just the music”, capturing moods and letting loose that inner child, allowing his expressive guitar abilities to take over what would normally be vocal lines. Crenshaw is a great do-it-yourselfer, and when left alone in the studio, creates rich musical landscapes. “Despite the Sun” is a moody, noir piece, starting out simply and building around a minor-key melody. The guitar is the star here, laying down the tone and punctuating it with variations on a riff for the better part of three minutes. After the three-minute mark, Crenshaw explodes with a fierce scream of a solo.
The CD closes with another instrumental, this one a joyous highlight of a song. “AKA a Big Heavy Hot Dog” (the title is from his four-year old son) is a wonderful romp that lets Crenshaw noodle to his heart’s content around a melody that sounds instantly familiar. Here Crenshaw puts his melodic guitar skills center stage, and there’s no denying his immense musical talent. It only gets better as it goes, and the listener is left wanting more as the song rallies to an abrupt ending.
What’s in the Bag? is a musical treasure trove for the Crenshaw fan, covering a wide variety of moods and sounds that reflect the talented songwriter’s maturity and influences. While he no longer aims to be “rockin’ around in NYC”, there is a quiet charm to what’s presented, and impressive musical skill. This isn’t about creating a commercial radio single; this is Marshall Crenshaw sharing his gifts with a discriminating yet older audience. All told, that’s a very good thing.