By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

Marshall Crenshaw
"What's in the Bag?"
Razor & Tie Records

Aug. 14, 2003

It's probably been easier for Marshall Crenshaw to be Buddy Holly and John Lennon than it has for him to be himself. At least those roles, in the movie "La Bamba" and with road companies of "Beatlemania," respectively, rested on familiar expectations.

Crenshaw was saddled right out of the gate as a critic's darling, a can't-miss next big thing, and he had the chops to earn the praise. "Marshall Crenshaw" (1982) boasted "Cynical Girl," "Someday Someway" and 10 other great tracks that earned it as many stars as reviewers had available. Not much changed on subsequent studio albums: more great songs, more positive reviews and loyal fans, but no commercial breakthrough.

Twenty-one years and a dozen albums later, the bespectacled singer/songwriter/guitarist returns with "What's in the Bag," another CD of power-pop leavened with R&B, tasty guitar and intricate melodies.

So what's missing? Energy, mostly, the snap and crackle that informs Crenshaw's best work. Midtempos dominate, and the music is married to mostly downer lyrics. Crenshaw is getting older, and he's one world-weary dude.

"Sometimes good things get thrown away/ I wish right now that it wasn't so," he sings in "Where Home Used to Be." "I try to laugh at the memory/ but it just laughs back at me," he complains in "From Now Until Then." On "The Spell is Broken," Crenshaw confesses he "sure didn't know that love would leave this way/ And belong to yesterday like an old discarded token."

The album includes two cover songs - Prince's "Take Me With U" and Bootsy Collins' "I'd Rather Be With You" - but they fail to break the sonic patterns of the rest of the CD, although the Prince tune adds a little snap.

Two instrumentals feature Crenshaw's masterful guitar playing, but they serve mainly to underscore the problem: His songcraft is showing. Usually, Crenshaw is like James Garner; you rarely catch Garner "acting."

On "What's in the Bag?," Crenshaw's art is still impressive. But he's polished these lines so much, the performance has lost its edge.