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FOR A NEW recording artist, lavish praise and comparisons to heroes past or present can mean sudden death. The problem, simply put, is unfulfilled expectations. Robert Palmer and John Hiatt (remember "the American Elvis Costello"?) didn't survive them. Countless other saviors, long since forgotten, were also victims. And even Bruce Springsteen needed time to recover from critic Jon Landau's infamous "I have seen the future of Rock 'n' Roll" line.
So imagine poor Marshall Crenshaw's predicament. First he made the mistake of writing a song. "Someday, Someway", that had the critics raving about "the new Buddy Holly." By itself, that little jewel salvaged a mediocre Robert Gordon album. Now, Crenshaw has released his own 33 and all hell has broken loose among those in the know. References to the Byrds. Buffalo Springfield and (gasp) the Beatles have been made. Quickly, the bandwagon has become crowded. And people are beginning to realize: the kid really is that good.
Crenshaw's debut gives a swift shot in the arm to the moribund pop-rock world. Record sales are way down, new and true talent rare, and it takes prehistoric monsters like Fleetwood Mac and Crosby. Stills and Nash to deliver the goods. On Marshall Crenshaw, every last track could easily put most of the FM top forty to shame. Eleven perfect singles are served up, each one seemingly stronger than its predecessor. Furthermore, Crenshaw's melodies are hopelessly addictive; they're just short enough to hook the listener but not entirely satisfy him. Back in the '60s, John Lennon and Paul McCartney made a career of just such tactics.
Twangy guitars, Beatlesque two-part harmonies and a fortress-strong rhythm section--brother Robert on drums and Chris Donato on bass--reinforce the tunes admirably. These guys are tight: no flashy guitar solos, overbearing synthesizers or eardrum-splitting decibels. Just straight ahead rock 'n roll with every note in its place.
Lyrically, Crenshaw draws often from the "Boy meets girl" school. Simple, it's true, but effective. Yet, irony is also abundant, as evidenced by "Cynical Girl":
I'm going out
I'm going out looking for a cynical girl
Who got no use for me in the world
I'm looking for a cynical girl
And we also find passion that rings true, as on "I'll Do Anything":
I'm gonna send you a message
Gonna send it to your heart from mine
I even wrote you a letter
I guess there's no real harm in trying
I'll play the fool resignedly
If that's what I have to do
Cause you mean a lot to me
I'll do anything for you
A few cuts on Marshall Crenshaw are positively eerie. "Soldier of Love" might very well be a track the Fab Four couldn't find room for on Beatles '65. "The Usual Thing" sounds strikingly like the Everly Brothers. But Crenshaw has done more than just successfully emulate his illustrious forebears. Rather, he is their logical successor, the latest link in an exquisite chain that began with Holly, hooked around Liverpool, latched onto California and then began to rust.
In what may become the ultimate footnote to rock history, it is worth nothing that Crenshaw got his start by playing the part of John Lennon in Beatlemania. Clearly, singing "Help," "Strawberry Fields" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" night after night rubbed off. And if you listen carefully enough, there are moments when Crenshaw brings the Walrus back to life.
Of course, a solitary album constitutes little on which to build a legend. Quite possibly, Crenshaw will be just another of rock's firecrackers, sparkling brilliantly for a few seconds and then disappearing forever. But his album bears too much promise, indeed too much immediate confirmation, to dismiss Crenshaw as a flash in the pan.
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