Crenshaw, Thompson shine; Waterboys hold steady
LIFE'S TOO SHORT
RUMOR AND SIGH
THE BEST OF THE WATERBOYS '81-'90
By DEBORAH A. LEVINSON
MARSHALL CRENSHAW has always been one of my favorite singers. Normally, I prefer listening to Government Issue, H"usker D"u or the Replacements, but there's something very soothing about Crenshaw's sweet, Buddy Holly voice. His latest release, Life's Too Short, is his first since 1987's Mary Jean and 9 Others.
Critics often fault Crenshaw for his inability to reproduce the shimmering pop sounds of his eponymous debut album. True, Crenshaw may never write another "Rockin' Around in N.Y.C." or "Someday, Someway," but "Better Back Off," "Fantastic Planet of Love" and "Everything's the Truth," all three of which are on Life's Too Short, aren't too different from their predecessors. They contain the same early-1960s jangly guitars, the same smooth, plaintive vocals, and the same immaculate sense of what makes the perfect, catchy pop song. For that's exactly what Crenshaw writes -- pure, unabashed pop music that is endlessly fun to listen to.
The charm of Crenshaw's music lies in his engaging mix of innocent lyrics with irresistible tunes. He can mate the simplest lyrics with deceptively simple guitar and come up with a winning combination, as in "Fantastic Planet of Love":
The way you smile even when heartbreak
Is closing in around you
You know that's one thing
I ought to learn how to do
Won't you hear my plea
Come by and see me
'Cause every time you smile
You make my world
A fantastic planet of love
Now, it's hard to lose with any song that contains the word "planet" in its title, and Crenshaw's offering is no exception. It's a silly love song, but it's definitely one of the best on the album.
And love songs are what Crenshaw does best. The closing track, "Somewhere Down the Line," is sad and beautiful, as two lovers uncertain about their present still retain hope for a future together. He sings:
The months go by one by one
Simplest thing under the sun
I know some time will be our time
Somewhere down the line.
Certainly, Life's Too Short is no Marshall Crenshaw. Crenshaw will probably never top that album, but in the meantime, Life's Too Short is a more than adequate substitute.
RICHARD THOMPSON, whose solo career has yielded albums as fine as those he recorded with his ex-wife, Linda, plays catchy tunes like Crenshaw's but with lyrics that are biting, cutting, bitter scenes of life. "I feel so good I'm going to break somebody's heart tonight," Thompson sings on "I Feel So Good," finishing the couplet with "I feel so good I'm going to take someone apart tonight."
Thompson's musical world is a dark, dismal one, where women and men betray each other with disturbing casualness, where everyone has some sort of secret
to hide, and where happy endings come about as often as a solar eclipse. The title of his latest album, Rumor and Sigh, is
an appropriate one. Shadows and rumors swirl around every storyline; couples can do nothing but sigh as their romances self-destruct.
"1952 Vincent Black Lightning" is prime Thompson. It tells the story of James, a robber who, as he lays dying, wills his precious vintage motorcycle to his girlfriend. The song is a ballad in the traditional style, but it carries more emotional weight than most:
He reached for her hand and he gave her the keys
He said I don't have any further use for these
I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome
Swooping down from heaven to carry me home
He gave her one last kiss and died
And he gave her his Vincent to ride.
Rumor and Sigh tells its stories almost as well from its song titles: "Backlash Love Affair," "Psycho Street," "Why Must I Plead," "I Misunderstood." Despite his preoccupation with break-ups and parasitic relationships, Thompson is no whiner. (That's Warren Zevon's province.) He has a knack for getting inside his characters and revealing their personalities with only a few words. In "Read About Love," Thompson's protagonist is a boy involved in a date rape who doesn't understand what he has done wrong. "Read about love -- Cosmo and Seventeen / Read about love -- in the back of Hustler," he says, explaining what an expert he is on "the ways of a woman." The song is chilling, not just for its subject matter, but for its depiction of a man so ignorant as to believe and act upon the sexist fluff printed in those magazines.
Thompson's guitar work is as brilliant as ever, and Rumor and Sigh is worth purchasing for his sense of melody alone. Buy it for the lyrics, though; it's music to play on gray, rainy days, music as raw and powerful as a thunderstorm.
IALWAYS FIND IT STRANGE when an "alternative" or underground band releases a greatest-hits compilation. R.E.M., Joy Division (posthumously), and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions have all done so, but I can't say that I expected the Waterboys to produce their own.
Unfortunately, The Best of the Waterboys '81-'90 doesn't stand up to their fellows' collections. As a rule, greatest hits albums are empty and spiritless; sure, they have the hits, but the best songs on an album are often never released, and therefore never turn up in collections.
This is not to say that The Best of doesn't contain any great songs. The Waterboys' most popular (Read: received a modicum of airplay) hits are almost all there: "A Girl Called Johnny," "All the Things She Gave Me," "The Whole of
the Moon" and "Fisherman's Blues." But where are "A Pagan Place," "Church Not Made With Hands," "Medicine Bow" and "This is the Sea"?
Of course, one can make a case for the fact that not everyone's favorites will appear on a greatest hits album, and that argument certainly has merit. Yet there is no point to including the execrable, sappy "A Man is in Love" when "Life of Sundays" -- the single from that same album, Room to Roam -- would have been a much better choice. And though the collection contains two new songs, "Killing My Heart" and "Old England," one song quotes from Fisherman's Blues' "When Ye Go Away," and it is a poorly executed, miserably rendered quote at that.
The Best of the Waterboys '81-'90 should be for completists only. "Killing My Heart" and "Old England" will undoubtedly turn up on some future album, and then this compilation will really have been a waste of $10.99.