Each and every one of the 12 songs on Marshall Crenshaw's debut album is breezy and refreshing. And with little more introduction than a perfectly constructed guitar lick, the best songs on "Marshall Crenshaw" (Warner Bros. BSK3673) blossom into the kind of timeless rock 'n' roll romances that have led critics to summon up the ghost of Buddy Holly. The Holly comparison is apt because Crenshaw, like Holly, can take three minutes and a melody and evoke a universe that is rhapsodic, intimate and sincere.
But despite all the attention this singer-composer-guitarist is getting, he's not doing anything new. He's just doing it close to perfect. Crenshaw works with simple, classic elements: drum and bass backup filled out with handclaps and harmonies, ringing guitar lines, and melodies memorable enough to provoke instant de'ja vu in anyone who ever gave their heart and ears to Holly, the Everly Brothers, the Beatles, the Shirelles or Searchers. In fact, Crenshaw is not unlike the girl he sings about in "She Can't Dance"--"She can't dance/she can't sing/but she's got to be part of this pop music thing." So Crenshaw plays pop the old-fashioned way. And in an era of demanding music, full of hard-nosed punks and art-school experimentalists clamoring for a new future for rock, the unassuming Crenshaw, hearts all over his sleeve, becomes something of a fresh face.
The melodies in Crenshaw's best songs, like "There She Goes Again" and "Someday, Some Way," are stunning. With producer Richard Gottehrer (whose training in the '60s pop industry recently helped the Go-Go's achieve '80s pop stardom), Crenshaw has fashioned a sound that glides and dips like a gentle roller coaster. It's slightly thrilling, a little dizzying, but not dangerous enough to upset the melodies or wistfully optimistic view Crenshaw conveys. His voice isn't memorable, but it's so plaintive and warm that it's like an old friend, not only instantly comforting but totally trustworthy. On "The Usual Thing," Crenshaw evokes the high harmonies of the Everly Brothers and even cranks out an expertly crafted Chet Atkins-style guitar break.
At times, Crenshaw's trouble-free persona, simple romantic conceits and lack of musical derring-do result in songs that can blow by you without ruffling a feather. Rock classicism always risks being as instantly dismissible as it is recognizable, and some of his songs, like "I'll Do Anything" and "Not for Me," are just pleasant in the worst way. Still, Crenshaw, granted his attachment to the best spirit of rock as a romantic pop art, is a gifted artist and given the emotional buoyancy of his best songs, it would be a crime if they did not make their way onto the car radio, where they could make driving a little more like sailing.
In terms of musical inspiration, the Fleshtones pick up about where Marshall Crenshaw leaves off--1965. Where Crenshaw is obsessed with classic melodies, the Fleshtones' satirically titled "Roman Gods" (IRS SP70018) reveals a band after rhythms, specifically the dancing kind. Musically born and bred in a frat house, the Fleshtones plow through a slew of '60s sources (including the Stones and Animals, surf and punk rock and Motown and New Orleans rhythm and blues) and come out on the other end as perhaps the trashiest and most irresistible dance band of the '80s. The lead cut of "Roman Gods," "The Dreg," is one carefully orchestrated lesson in basic rock dynamics that could be called irrelevant if not for the frightening intensity with which the Fleshtones work through the primitive grammar of the song.
Surprisingly, one of the most original and satisfying songs on the album is the band's reworking of Lee Dorsey's "Ride Your Pony." Led by Keith String's repeated guitar figure and Peter Zaremba's exhortations to dance one more time, the band creates a dense surging rhythm that makes it clear the ride will be wilder this time around. On the best songs, including the title cut, the raucous sax work, fuzztone guitar and shouted choruses of "Sha La La" suggest a group barely in control of its own energy. In fact the Fleshtones escape revivalism by delivering on the simple Dionysian promise that whatever we reveled in in the past can be made more pleasurable and intense in the present.