By David Browne
Updated September 01, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

For whatever reason, certain musicians seemingly suited for mass consumption are destined to remain what marketers would call niche products. Despite the use of her songs in Magnolia, Aimee Mann appears headed for such a province, following in the bad-luck footsteps of such underappreciated performers as E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren. And then there’s Marshall Crenshaw, one of the great lost rockers of the ’80s. In the early part of that decade, when the mainstream was epitomized by the mullet-headed mall rock of Journey, the Detroit-raised, New York-based Crenshaw made at least four albums that turned back the clock in the best way. The first two — 1982’s Marshall Crenshaw and the following year’s Field Day — felt like joyful leftovers from some mythical pre-counterculture ’60s. Each boasted two LP sides of nonstop, lodge-in-your-brain roustabouts that nodded to the British Invasion and ’50s rock, yet, thanks to the contemporary flair of his lyrics, avoided the retro veneer of another period act, the Stray Cats. It seemed perfectly natural for Crenshaw to portray his spiritual and physical forefather, Buddy Holly, in the 1987 film La Bamba.

Big things were expected of Crenshaw, artistically and commercially. Instead, he became bedeviled by writer’s block, a paucity of hits, and increasingly strained relations with record companies. And as music videos were becoming essential for stardom, Crenshaw’s lack of visual dynamism — he could appear downright lackadaisical on stage — was also a hindrance. By the ’90s, he had earned enough industry respect to see his songs covered by everyone from Bette Midler to Kelly Willis, and he had his first major hit when he cowrote the Gin Blossoms’ ”Til I Hear It From You.” But with each passing year and every new album, Crenshaw became more of a cult figure, leaving executives, fans, and critics alike frustrated that he never generated much public excitement beyond the ’82 semi-hit ”Someday, Someway.”

In light of his history, there’s more than a touch of bittersweet irony in the title of Crenshaw’s first-ever anthology, This Is Easy. Still, this welcome and overdue compilation makes the best of a sad situation. The tracks off his first two albums — from the skiffle skip of ”There She Goes Again” and the spirited melancholy of ”Mary Anne” to the walls-of-hooky-sound ”Whenever You’re on My Mind” and ”Our Town,” not to mention his first single, the 1981 crackerjack ”Something’s Gonna Happen” — sound as invigorating as ever. Imagine that: guitar pop imbued with joy and song craft. The winsome yearn of Crenshaw’s voice has always had its limitations, but that was instrumental to his appeal: He looked and sounded more like a fan than an angst-ridden rock star. (Incidentally, Rhino is also reissuing an expanded version of Marshall Crenshaw, which tacks on nine bonus cuts — live tracks and demos — that will enthrall mostly the devout.)

The troubles that gradually beset Crenshaw are felt here, too. You can detect his sagging spirits on mid-period tracks like ”Somebody Crying” and his resigned cover of Ben Vaughn’s ”I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee).” By then, it was clear that the youthful rush of his first two albums was fading fast. This Is Easy does a more than commendable job of rescuing woefully obscure cuts from his more problematic later albums. The biting but effervescent ”You Should’ve Been There” and his remake of John Hiatt’s ”Someplace Where Love Can’t Find Me” (both from 1989’s compromised Good Evening) revealed a newfound maturity in delivery and sound as he grew into what could be called adolescent adulthood. One of Crenshaw’s enduring gifts is his ability, even as a married man approaching 50, to make his chronicles of boyish romantic despair feel genuine and not contrived. The collection’s most recent song, 1996’s ”What Do You Dream Of?” (a man looks over at his sleeping mate and contemplates her ”secret world”), is pensive in mood, yet feels as forlorn as a teenager’s diary. This Is Easy must be docked a notch for not including more songs in that vein, such as 1985’s ”The Distance Between,” and for omitting early gems like ”Rockin’ Around in N.Y.C.” and ”Mary Jean.”

Heard now, when rhythm more than melody dominates pop songwriting, This Is Easy sounds strangely quaint. Like Nirvana’s Nevermind, it marks the culmination of an era, rather than the new beginning many of us first thought. The very notion that Crenshaw’s compact verse-chorus sparklers had a shot at mass success seems quainter still. You may well scratch your head in frustration, too, but don’t be surprised to find yourself humming along at the same time. A-