Partway into slow country waltz “Will We Ever?,” the opening track to Marshall Crenshaw’s first real studio album in four years, I started worrying that MC had made his Nick Lowe move, de-emphasizing his once impeccable rockin’ pop crispness in pursuit of a more muted sound. (“It’s Dig My Mood II,” the shotgun critic inside me groused. “We’ve lost another pop guy to the drive to prove how mature they’ve become!”) Wasn’t ’til we got to the third track of What’s in the Bag? (Razor & Tie) that my worries began to lessen: MC doin’ a serious folk-rock remake of Prince’s “Take Me with U”? That’s the stuff I was waiting for!
At his best, Marshall Crenshaw does rootsy pop-rock like nobody’s bizness. Blessed with a plainly tuneful voice and a knack for playing conversational Willie Nelson-like diction against the demands of rhythm, Crenshaw is an artist with a strong fan and critical following – and diddly in the way of Big Pop Recognition. (His most successful composition in terms of radio play has probably been his Gin Blossoms collaboration, “Til I Hear It from You.”) Bag‘s not likely to change this situation, though it’s a perfectly respectable addition to the Crenshaw Canon: lots of wistful songs of regret and romantic ambivalence, plenty of efficiently moody guitarwork, two anachronistic guitar instrumentals. May take some time to fully kick in (unlike his eponymous debut – or 1996′s Miracle of Science), but once it does, the disc stands on its own.
For me, the Convincer is a trio of songs that begins with “A Thousand Days Ago,” an airy ballad that depicts our hero riding a train and considering the sights as he leaves an old life (nice suggestive use of steel guitar on this ‘un), and continues with what has to be the disc’s best track, “Long and Complicated.” The story of a man who’s unable to say goodbye to a needy femme with sad dark eyes (“Sometimes I wanna be her protector/Next day I wanna reject her”), the song catches Crenshaw doin’ what he’s born to do: framing love’s conflicts in a deceptively simple sounding rock ‘n’ roll song. When he moves into a remake of Bootsy Collins’(!) ballad “I’d Rather Be with You,” my shotgun critic is silenced for good. “This isn’t Crenshaw’s Dig My Mood,” I realized, “But it’s not Pure Pop for Now People either. Maybe it’s his Impossible Bird.”
Bag‘s not the disc I’d give to someone who wanted to be introduced to Crenshaw (for that, maybe Rhino’s exemplary best-of This Is Easy or its deluxe reissue of Marshall Crenshaw), but for those of us already accustomed to the man’s direct and no-nonsense artistry, his return to the studio still yields lots of modest pleasure. If you nodded knowingly at all the Nick Lowe refs needlessly sprinkled into this piece, then you’ve probably already got a copy of Crenshaw’s release, right?
So what’s in the bag? Just another collection of great to middlin’, mid to slow tempo pop tunes. That’ll do for now.