To state that singer/songwriter Michael Penn comes from good show business stock, would be a gross understatement. Though he’s not achieved the fame and notoriety that younger brothers Sean and Christopher managed in the world of cinema, Michael Penn did manage to carve out a niche during the late 80s/early 90s in the music scene.
Born in New York City to actor/director father Leo Penn and actress mother Eileen Ryan, Michael Penn grew up in Los Angeles listening to the great bands of the 60s, like The Beatles (who would strongly influence his work), the Rolling Stones, Cream, and The Byrds. By junior high Penn had become a budding guitarist and played regularly in a covers band, honing his craft singing and playing the music he grew up with.
Whilst attending Santa Monica High School he turned to song writing, initially focusing on what he would later refer to as “earnest, downbeat” songs. In the early 80s he formed his first band called Doll Congress. They actually built up enough of a following on the local scene, to once open for then indie rockers R.E.M., but they weren’t bringing in enough to pay the bills, so Penn turned to working in television for a time. He mostly worked as an extra, appearing in drama shows such as ‘St. Elsewhere’, around the time that his younger brothers Sean and Chris were both establishing themselves in motion pictures.
Eventually Doll Congress dissolved, but around a year later his brother Sean was hosting an episode of ‘Saturday Night Live’. Sean arranged for older brother Michael to appear as the musical guest on that show. Though the 1987 ‘Saturday Night Live’ experience didn’t lead directly to anything big, it at least made a substantial television audience aware that Sean Penn had an older brother who could sing and play the guitar really well. It also brought Michael Penn to the attention of the suits at BMG records, who saw and heard in the young performer, the potential for a hit album.
Penn turned to former Doll Congress keyboardist Patrick Warren to work with him on a bunch of song ideas in preparation to record an album. The result of the collaboration was the first class set ‘March’ released in early 1990. The lead out single was the brilliantly Beatle-esque acoustic pop number ‘No Myth’. I recall seeing the promo video at the time and just being blown away by the song at first listen, and rushed out to buy the vinyl 45 single. A lot of other people must have done likewise, as ‘No Myth’ reached both the U.S. (#13) and Australian (#18) top twenty. It was one of those songs that grew in its charm each time you listened to it, the combination of melody and lyrics drawing you in to its private world. It was insightful, thought provoking folk-pop at its best, and would not have sounded out of place had it been added to the track listing of a ‘Rubber Soul’ or ‘Revolver’, or an Elvis Costello album like ‘Spike’.
The album ‘March’, produced by Tony Berg, was well received on the back of the popularity of ‘No Myth’. ‘March’ eventually marched to #31 in the U.S. and #58 in Australia, and earned Michael Penn the ‘Best New Artist MTV Video Music Award’ for 1990. I recall seeing Penn and Patrick Warren perform ‘No Myth’ as an acoustic number on the awards show. The album also yielded the minor hit single ‘This & That’ (US#53/OZ#84), which wasn’t as strong a track as ‘No Myth’, but was worthy of a higher chart placing. I purchased that song on vinyl 45 also, and a few months later purchased the album on CD (to be honest I found it a little hard to find at the time - CDs were still in their relative infancy in terms of title availability). The album ‘March’ featured eleven tracks in all, from folksy ballads to edgy electrified rockers, Aside from the two single releases, other highlights included the brilliant lyrics of the Dylan-esque ‘Brave New World’ and ‘Cupid’s Got A Brand New Gun’, and probably my favourite track (outside of ‘No Myth’) ‘Evenfall’, a homage to 60s ‘frat rock’. Michael Penn covered vocals/guitar and some bass work, alongside Patrick Warren on keyboards (and drums from session drummer extraordinaire Jim Keltner, in between Traveling Wilburys assignments). Warren made exceptional use of an instrument called the Chamberlin, an antiquated keyboard not dissimilar to the much famed Mellotron (of The Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields’ era). It enabled Warren to simulate violin, flute, oboe etc. with the use of the one instrument, and was a big factor in the whole Beatle-esque sound of the album.
Michael Penn released his sophomore album ‘Free For All’ in 1992, but although featuring much the same style as its predecessor, it could only manage #160 on the U.S. chart, and the singles ‘Long Way Down (Look At What The Cat Drug In)’ and ‘Seen The Doctor’ missed the Hot 100. By 1992, grunge was dominating pretty much everything, so psychedelic edged folk-rock didn’t get much of a look in. Another reason may have been the album’s darker tone overall, less immediately engaging to the listener as ‘March’, but ultimately just as rewarding in terms of enveloping its listener inside a virtual, almost visual world, induced by Penn’s acerbic lyrics, with Patrick Warren again adding layers of sumptuously atmospheric instrumental work.
Sadly, the commercial failure of ‘Free For All’ led to a tumultuous and fractious relationship between Michael Penn and the suits at RCA/BMG. It was five years before Penn resurfaced with 1997’s ‘Resigned’, on the Epic label. The album was more of a direct affair, less introspective than ‘Free For All’, with a focus on more up tempo melody driven guitar pop. His follow up was the curiously titled ‘MP4 (Days Since A Lost Time Accident)’ in 2000. I’ve not heard the album but reviews indicate that Penn shunned away from a commercial bent, challenging listeners to be drawn into the album on repeat listens, though the lead out single ‘Lucky One’ (which I’ll have to try and track down) is apparently as infectious on first listen as ‘No Myth’. The album featured backing vocals from Michael Penn’s wife, singer Aimee Mann, and Grant Lee Phillips (of the brilliant Grant Lee Buffalo - see future post), and also marked the end of Michael Penn’s association with major labels. In 2001 Penn (with wife Aimee Mann) recorded a duet of the Beatles’ classic ‘Two Of Us’ from the Beatles’ specific soundtrack to brother Sean’s film ‘I Am Sam’.
2005’s ‘Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947’ was released on the independent spinART label. It’s arguably Penn’s most ambitious album to date, a conceptual effort in every respect of the word. Again, it’s not an album I’ve heard first hand (I seriously need to update my Michael Penn collection), but the album’s song structure are built around the theme of post World War II Los Angeles, with numerous and sundry historical references dotted throughout the song lyrics, when in union with the music, serves to create a film-noir atmosphere. It must have found an audience at the time as it reached #45 on the U.S. Top Independent Albums chart.
During the mid to late 90s Penn also lent his ‘cinematic’ musical ear to film score work, including 1997’s ‘Hard Eight’ with director Paul Thomas Anderson, and ‘Boogie Nights’ (in which he appeared in cameo as a record producer), through to 2008‘s ‘Sunshine Cleaning’. It begs the question as to whether some adventurous young director out there would be willing to collaborate with Penn in adapting his ‘Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947’ album to a film project, or perhaps like Penn’s other work, it’s most rewarding when left to the listener’s imagination to invent the visual world to accompany.