Despite their many virtues, the new releases by Marshall Crenshaw, John Hiatt and Warren Zevon aren't the commercial breakthroughs a lot of people have eagerly awaited. For starters, Crenshaw's album lacks a truly compelling song, something that grabs hold of you the first time around. And both Hiatt and Zevon remain, intentionally or not, on the fringe of the pop mainstream. Yet all three albums are quite impressive, not merely for the music they contain but also for the chances they take.
The first thing you notice about Crenshaw's "Mary Jean and Nine Others" (Warner Bros. 25583) is the highly compressed sound mix favored by producer Don Dixon. Drums figure prominently, as do the clangy guitars and vocal harmonies loaded with reverb. Occasionally the thick rhythmic textures seem at odds with Crenshaw's light tenor, a voice that still recalls the carefree and less sophisticated sounds of Buddy Holly and the early Beatles with natural ease.
But more often Dixon's participation results in punchy, drum-driven songs like "This Is Easy" or "A Hundred Dollars," which evoke the past without being slavishly redundant. Typically, Crenshaw's songs are tuneful, uncomplicated and crafty -- hummable vocal and instrumental hooks abound. In trying to develop a slightly more contemporary sound, he clearly hasn't lost his flair for composing innocent, old-fashioned rock tunes like "Wild Abandon" or "This Secret," which close out the first side.
And yet there's something missing. Spontaneity, maybe. As buoyant as much of the music is, Crenshaw often sounds reserved, as if he were emotionally detached from the words he is singing, or feeling confined by the studio. In the end, you get the sense that, except for a moving and rather faithful version of Peter Case's "Steel Strings," most of these songs will sound far more invigorating in concert.
By contrast, Hiatt's album "Bring the Family" (A&M 5158) opens with a thumping, loose-limbed number called "Memphis in the Meantime," a performance as soulful as it is self-assured. The sly bass line that underpins the next tune, "Alone in the Dark," again reveals Hiatt's abiding affection for soul music, just as the lean and nimble rhythm section of Nick Lowe (bass), Ry Cooder (guitar) and Jim Keltner (drums) continually recalls the Motown and Stax era.
Hiatt's albums, though, are only as good as his lyrics. In the past, some of his best songs have dissected human relationships with brutal honesty, while others have wed amusing wordplay and indelible images to an infectious beat. Here he manages to do both. "Memphis in the Meantime," for example, is vibrantly descriptive, a raucous lament by a country music captive desperate for a change of scenery:
'Cause one more heartfelt steel guitar chord
Girl, it's gonna do me in
I need to hear some trumpet and saxophone
You know sound as sweet as sin.
"Alone in the Dark," on the other hand, is an achingly blunt portrait of a lover left behind:
It's a lonely picture
of an empty glass
It's a still life study
Of a drunken ass
And he howls at the moon
Hoping the sun don't come up too fast.
Not all of the songs are as effective as these -- there are a couple of throwaway tunes. But the album has more than its share of gems and will only bolster Hiatt's reputation as one of the finest songwriters around.
Like Hiatt, Zevon is a spinner of psychological tales, frequently drawing on his own life for material. After a five-year layoff, he's back at it again on "Sentimental Hygiene" (Virgin 4 90603), and he's never sounded better.
By far his most consistent and controlled effort, the album succeeds, on one level at least, as an intriguing collaboration. Everyone from R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry to Bob Dylan, Neil Young and George Clinton lent a hand. But it's Zevon's talent as a songwriter that shines through most consistently, especially when he speaks from firsthand experience. Take the chorus to "Detox Mansion," for instance, in which the narrator recalls raking leaves with Liza and helping Liz clean up the yard:
It's tough to be somebody
It's hard to keep from falling apart
Here on rehab mountain
We all learn these things by heart.
Other songs, particularly "Even a Dog Can Shake Hands" and "Leave My Money Alone," confront various issues, hypocrisy and colonialism among them, with a similarly biting and incisive tone. Also included are two lovely and touching ballads, "Reconsider Me" and "The Heartache," which offer further proof that Zevon, never much of a singer, has matured even in that department.