Marshall Crenshaw – “Marshall Crenshaw” (1982)

April 19, 2010 at 5:47 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Pure-Pop Perfection

Marshall Crenshaw’s 1982 self-titled debut album is, without a doubt, a pure-pop bona fide masterpiece – one of the most well-crafted, melodic albums in the musical spectrum – and that’s no mere hyperbole, my friends. It is simply one of the most perfect debut albums ever released. Period.

Every song is a sparkling pop gem, overflowing with melodic invention and effervescent joy, yet never failing to rock like crazy when the situation calls for it. You won’t find this many ridiculously-catchy songs all in one place, this side of an old K-Tel compilation. Any one of these twelve “shoulda-been” classics will become lodged in your brain for weeks, if not months or years – probably after only one or two listens. How half the songs, if not all of them, didn’t become the smash hits they so clearly deserved to be is certainly one of music’s more tragic tales. Back in the 1960s, they most assuredly would have been fighting for chart space along with The Beatles and Hollies. And speaking of The Beatles, Crenshaw shows a clear affinity for the style and structure of many Lennon and McCartney songs, as well as a definite 1950s rockabilly influence. He does this, though, without ever sounding like some pale recreation of styles that were 15-25 years in the past, at the time of this recording. Crenshaw is not some mere nostalgia peddler – he just simply takes the best parts of the past and brings them into the future, and by doing so shows how timeless those styles truly are. He could have come out with this album at any time in the past fifty years, probably because he didn’t go for the gimmicky, sterile production techniques that overwhelmed so much of the music throughout the 1980s.

The bespectacled, nerdy-looking Crenshaw (think Buddy Holly, whom he later portrayed in both Peggy Sue Got Married and La Bamba) had played John Lennon in stage productions of Beatlemania during the late-‘70s, so he came by his Beatles influence honestly; though, in fact, his songs reflected more of a Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson pop bent, as well as Holly himself.

After many years of overblown, pretentious Rock (with a capital R), and the nihilistic trappings of late-‘70s punk, Crenshaw’s songs clearly strove to turn back the clock when songwriters wrote 3-minute catchy songs bursting with memorable choruses and lyrics about “girls, girls, girls” (as went the chorus of one of the best songs on the album) – dreaming about them, staring at them, wanting them, but never quite walking off with them.

Crenshaw is a master of writing simplistic, effortless songs that never cross over the line into “dumbed-down stupidity” like so many pop songs do. He makes it look all too easy. If it were this easy, though, everyone would be writing songs this good. Hell, even Crenshaw, himself, has only intermittently written songs this timeless and brilliant in the 28 years since this album came out.

Choosing which songs are the best, from this release, is almost impossible. They are all unbelievably great and extremely tuneful. Certainly though, a few stand out just a little more than others – namely, “There She Goes Again,” “Someday, Someway” (a hit at the time for ‘50s revivalist Robert Gordon), “Mary Anne,” the rockabilly-leaning “The Usual Thing,” and the above-quoted “Girls.” In any one of these gems, Crenshaw shows a clear knack for writing wistful, melodic odes to unrequited love. He captures the teenage-to-early-20s vulnerability of many awkward, young men, but wisely avoids wimpy sentimentality. Only a few other writers since Crenshaw have captured that kind of innocence in their songwriting and singing – namely Michael “Spike” Priggen on his 1987 unjustly-obscure Hello Strangers release, Goodbye, and Allen Clapp’s 2001 Orange Peels pop gem, So Far, which is almost the equal to this album.

Crenshaw also makes the Arthur Alexander classic “Soldier of Love” one of his own. His self-penned and aptly-titled “Rockin’ Around in NYC” and “Cynical Girl” also make a very strong impression. Again, any one of these songs could have and clearly should have been a Top 10 hit back in 1982 (or any other year, for that matter). Crenshaw, unfortunately, had to compete with the then-current synth-heavy New Romantic and New Wave fads, making his music (not to mention his look) seem like an anachronism at the time, which looking back now, it clearly was not. These twelve songs sound just as fresh and timeless as the day they came out, whereas a lot of the hits from that time simply sound like dated relics by pretty-boy poseurs with ridiculous clothes and haircuts.

These are also the kinds of songs that sound great no matter what situation or mood you find yourself in. They make the perfect soundtrack for riding in your car on a warm summer’s day, with the windows rolled down.

What else can I say about this album that hasn’t already been said? It’s perfection personified, and Crenshaw never topped himself, though he made many more great albums in the years to come. This album, though, was the achievement of a lifetime, and the world is a slightly better place because of it. So, roll down the windows of your car, go for a long ride, and turn this timeless album all the way up. They truly don’t come any finer.

Jay Mucci

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Warren Zevon – “The Wind” (2003)

April 19, 2010 at 5:23 pm (Fran Fried, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Warren Zevon’s final album, recorded while he was dying of cancer, featuring the song that I would like played at my funeral someday, “Keep Me in Your Heart” (incredibly sad and moving, but without sappiness). This review comes from Fran Fried, Aug. 22, 2003, from the New Haven Register…

Zevon Has the Final Word, and It’s a Strong Wind

So why should things change now that the reaper really is walking up the sidewalk, ready to ring the doorbell for his big date?|

Bcause this is real life — that’s why.

Things did change. Even the most cavalier of wits can’t laugh off the inoperable lung cancer with which Zevon was diagnosed a year ago this coming Thursday. And with death drawing closer (he was too ill to respond to emailed questions for an Associated Press story this week), his final album, which comes out Tuesday, has more than its share of tearjerking references to what’s coming.

But it’s full of abandon and happiness and love and wit, too. In other words, it’s human. And if anything, Zevon’s final words resonate because of that humanity and because of their surprisingly even temperament — though, all the while, it’s hard to keep yours on an even keel when you listen to the album.

How do you not react when you hear Zevon, his husky voice getting weaker, singing Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” as anthemic in its way as “Free Bird”? Or, even more so, when you hear him close the album with the strummer “Keep Me in Your Heart” — when, as “shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath,” he makes the dying plea not to forget him? Incredibly sad, yes, but at least you know Zevon’s not trying to milk it.

And regrets? He’s had a few. “Amor de Mi Vida,” a Latin-tinged piano ballad that’s equal parts John Lennon and Dylan; and “She’s Too Good for Me,” a Latin, acoustic guitar-laced ballad, are about the love he let get away. And the sorrow drips from his voice with each note. And “Stay With Me,” a plea to a lover (with backing from Emmylou Harris), is driven home by the most mournful sax line in the world, from Gus Bernal.

But the emotional flipside of this album assures you this is also a celebration of life, both the absurd and the mundane.

The opening tune is as flip and cheeky as he gets here, as he seeks a woman with low-self-esteem who’ll ease his mind as he winds down his “Dirty Life and Crimes.” “Disorder in the House,” with Bruce Springsteen on guitar and backing vocals, is delivered with as much wide-open gusto as the On the Border-era Eagles. He gets feisty and prickly discussing the realities of his situation on “Rub Me Raw,” a nasty blues slide-guitar progression straight out of “Rocky Mountain Way” (most probably because it’s Joe Walsh himself on guitar). And the twangy “The Rest of the Night,” with Tom Petty and Mike Campbell on board, is a devil-may-care call to party all night.

Like a person whose friends gather around the deathbed, Zevon surrounded himself with his musical pals — Springsteen, Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Ry Cooder, Don Henley, Tim Schmit, Joe Walsh, Petty, Campbell, Jackson Browne, Billy Bob Thornton, John Waite, David Lindley, Tommy Shaw — for this final disc, produced by his longtime best friend, Jorge Calderon. And now he can let go, knowing he did his best.

Fran Fried

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The Monks – “Black Monk Time” (1966)

April 19, 2010 at 2:01 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Written by Amanda Scigaj for Crawdaddy!, Jan. 26, 2010. For all intents & purposes, The Monks were one of the first “punk” bands, years before The Ramones and Sex Pistols, but they never got the recognition they deserved at the time. They have since been recognized as minor legends, and rightly so…

It was “Monktime” in Germany long before it was “Anarchy in the UK.”

Dressed in black, sporting tonsures instead of mohawks, and forgoing safety pin accoutrements, punk’s unlikely progenitors were the Monks, who released their one and only album, Black Monk Time, on Polydor Records in 1966. While America was watching the Monkees on television, the Monks were developing songs with titles like “I Hate You” and “Shut Up.”

Strangely, the guys behind these songs were not a band of disenfranchised guttersnipes, but a group of former American GIs living in Western Germany who originally played Chuck Berry covers as the Torquays. Growing bored with familiar material, Larry, Gary, Rodger, Eddie, and Dave decided to experiment, dishonorably discharging sunshine and melody. What replaced those elements were a thunderous drumming style and cornerstones of what would be punk: Feedback and distortion. 

Although the Monks’ first encounter with the wild and wooly effect was purely accidental (guitarist Gary Burger left his instrument too close to the amp on his way to the head), it soon became a staple of their sound. One can find videos of perplexed German teenagers trying their best to shimmy and shake to the Monks on Beat Club, a local spin on American Bandstand.

If the Monks’ sound was confrontational, their lyrics weren’t far behind. The year that the band released Black Monk Time, the American Dream was still alive and well in the United States, with the dissent of its youth only a mere rumble. But, on the opening line of “Monktime”, Burger waxes poetic about the first televised war: “You know we don’t like the Army / Who cares what Army? / Why do you kill all those boys over there in Vietnam / Mad Vietcong? / My brother died in Vietnam.” Recited with frank disdain, his screed foreshadows patriotic fallout, and the “tune in, drop out” mentality that would follow later on in the decade.

During this time, there were certainly a handful of other bands that experimented with similar sounds, including the Velvet Underground and the Fugs. However, this auditory assault was framed within the New York art scene; a place far away, both physically and socially, from a country torn apart by communism. While the Velvets were an art-rock band with a place in the Factory and a patron in Andy Warhol, and the Fugs were a band with a political bent and roots in the Beat Movement, the Monks were just five army guys without any home, making good music as if by accident.

Framework and context aside, Black Monk Time is an incredible album. It’s an extremely catchy tour de force, and you don’t need a history lesson to enjoy it. On the opener, “Monk Time”, there’s the crash of an electric organ, the heartbeat thump of the toms in militaristic precision, the frenetic chop of electric banjo and guitar, the call-and-response of provocative lyrics­­, and it all boils over into screeching fuzz. “Complications” is a chant detailing the lyrics, “People cry / People die for you / People kill / People will for you / People run / Ain’t it fun for you / People go / To their deaths for you / Complication!” As relationship woes always remain complicated themselves, Burger screeches emphatically, “Hey, well, I hate you with a passion baby, yeah I do!” on “I Hate You”, and the remaining Monks echo back, “But call me!” By far the catchiest and party-ready is “Drunken Maria.” In less than a sentence and two minutes, it captures a crazed frenzy so good you get the spins.

Although they were not a commercial success, neither were the Monks’ more popular peers. What is lasting and continues to be evident is their influence on punk and garage rock. Artists from Henry Rollins to the Beastie Boys have acknowledged their influence. The Fall covered “I Hate You” and “Oh, How Do You Now” on 1990’s Extricate, under the respective titles “Black Monk Theme Part I” and “Black Monk Theme Part II.” Tribute records have been pressed, fan clubs established, and their one album has been re-released several times over, most recently by Retribution Records, simply as Monk Time. The album continues to find new listeners; it is not remembered as an old black-and-white picture, but rather something that continues to resonate.

Amanda Scigaj

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