[Review] Marshall Crenshaw: Downtown (1985)

It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, with lots to like on Crenshaw’s third album.

Kronomyth 3.0: Shaken and stirring.

Retro down to the record’s label, chocked full of the timeless treats that delight (and confound) Crenshavians. I write “confound” because Marshall Crenshaw is such a swell songwriter and yet commercial interest in his songs was declining at a pace almost palpable. He is not (I’m sorry) a gifted singer. He’s generally nasal, sometimes even whiny. His songs would sound great sung by somebody else. So what to do with that lemon of a larynx but make lemonade, which MC makes in buckets.

Downtown will be too tart for some tastes, especially if country time isn’t your brand. The young listeners who first tuned in for “Someday, Someway” (myself included) didn’t know Buddy Holly from Buddy Hackett, Gene Vincent from Gene Simmons. So all this immaculate re-creation of a golden age regilded with Byrdsian guitars and sweeping choruses puts Crenshaw in the same prickly camp as Joe Jackson, artists who overestimated their audience. Mind you, I always had a soft spot for Downtown (and Mary Jean), I just didn’t know what to do with it. Was I listening to a rockabilly rebel, a country crooner with cosmopolitan roots, an archeological avenger? I knew I was being dragged into country music, somehow both willingly and against my will, fighting the dual desire to buy a truck and a skinny tie at the same time.

All of that, really, should be incidental to the music, which is aces. “The Distance Between,” “Terrifying Love,” “(We’re Gonna) Gonna Shake Up Their Minds” and “I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)” are the kind of songs you tuck away for the long haul. From “Little Wild One” to “Lesson Number One,” this is American songwriting at its best.

Original elpee version

A1. Little Wild One (No. 5) (3:51)
A2. Yvonne (3:50)
A3. Blues Is King (3:48)
A4. Terrifying Love (4:02)
A5. Like A Vague Memory (4:04)
B1. The Distance Between (3:43)
B2. (We’re Gonna) Shake Up Their Minds (3:32)
B3. I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee) (Ben Vaughn) (3:17)
B4. Right Now (Sylvester Bradford/Al Lewis) (2:40)
B5. Lesson Number One (4:04)

All songs written by Marshall Crenshaw unless noted.

The Players

Marshall Crenshaw (guitars, vocals, six-string bass, percussion), Mickey Curry (drums) with Tom Ardolino (drums on A2), T-Bone Burnett (Linn program, electric sitar, vocals), Robert Crenshaw (drums), Mitch Easter (piano on A3), Steve Fischel (steel guitar on A5), Mitchell Froom (keyboards), Tony Garnier (stand-up bass on B5), Faye Hunter (bass guitar on A3), Warren Klein (tamboura on B3), Tony Levin (bass guitar), Jerry Marotaa (drums, percussion, bongos), David Miner (bass guitar, stand-up bass, cannon plug), G.E. Smith (1st guitar solo on A2), Joey Spampinato (bass guitar on A2). Produced by T-Bone Burnett, Marshall Crenshaw and Larry Hirsch except A3 by Mitch Easter and Marshall Crenshaw; engineered by Larry Hirsch, Thom Panunzio, Steve Haigler, Bill Jackson, Lincoln Clapp; mixed by Larry Hirsch.

The Pictures

Photography by Victoria Pearson. Art direction by Jeffrey Kent Averoff and Jeri McManus. Design by Jeri McManus and Gina Vivona.

The Plastic

Released on elpee, cassette and compact disc on September 16, 1985 in the US (Warner Bros., 25319) and the UK, Canada and Germany (Warner Bros., 92 63191) with picture innersleeve. Reached #113 on the US charts.

  1. Re-issued on compact disc on October 25, 2005 in the US (Wounded Bird, 5319).

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