Many music enthusiasts have those albums that gather dust and go forgotten through no fault of the performer. Those same recordings have the magic ability to instantly transport the listener back in time. Michael Penn’s “March” is one of those albums for me. I started reminiscing about the album after hearing “No Myth playing at a local retail location. Upon hearing that song I went back and dug it out of my record collection and that event eventually led to this review. Currently, Michael Penn is probably more renown for his marriage to songbird Aimee Mann or as Sean Penn’s brother than for his stellar debut album “March”. But back in 1989, it looked as if Penn might just overshadow his more famous brother with his album of quirky erudite pop. He would win the 1990 MTV Music Award for Best New Artist and gain a solid following of admirers. His singles from the album “No Myth, This and That, and Brave New World” could not be escaped on what was considered Alternative Radio in 1989.
However, with the turn of the decade and Grunge coming down the pike Penn’s commercial pop career would be short-lived. He along with many singer/songwriter inspired bands would be pushed aside in that coming sonic tsunami. What would be lost in that pending tidal wave were many a brilliantly literate performer and Penn was certainly included in that category. March was a sampler of Penn’s brilliant ability to write free-form, engaging songs loaded with literary allusions and everyday insights. He displayed a laser pointer ability to present the foibles and uniqueness of the individual in the modern world.
March would be recorded at Zeitgeist Studios, LA and produced by Tony Berg. Penn drew together a number of session musicians to make up his band while playing numerous instruments himself. The album would score a number of chart positions including; # 5 on the Mainstream Rock Billboard chart and #13 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Penn’s songs owed a lot to inspirations like the Beatles and Bob Dylan but also to contemporary peers like Crowded House and the wry songs of The Smiths.
March begins with the winning track No Myth an earworm of bouncy, intelligent rock. The fabulously addictive chorus was heightened by the catchy guitar and effervescent organ. The song is still timeless today and explained much of why it was so enthusiastically received by radio. The next track Half Harvest was Lennonesque, to say the least. It was both equally harmonic and insightful as it examined humanity’s penchant for style over substance. The song sticks with you long after you listen, as it pointed out how the very things you want often become a cage.
My absolutely favourite track and one that is firmly placed in my massive all-time playlist is This and That. The song describes someone who has jumped through every hoop to win over a love interest and still is unable to seal the deal. The bouncy, energetic selection belies the yearning that is coming out of every pour in the song. The situation is eloquently described using intelligent lyrics balanced with attractive sonics. This brilliant track is followed by Brave New World which is a reeling arms akimbo venture. The vivid lyrics come at you at a head-turning speed providing an out of control feeling. Penn blends Chris Isaac guitars and a Neo Big Band vibe and comes out with a Beatles/Crowded House banter song.
Innocent One changes up the tempo of the record with a folk-tinged bittersweet ballad. The song conveys all the regret of meeting someone at the wrong time and letting them slip through your fingers. The intricate organ and accordion provide all the pathos of the narrative as perfectly conveyed with Penn’s touching lyrics.
Disney’s a Snowcone/Bedlam Boys displays Penn’s ability to craft a panoramically, stunning track. Penn paints a narrative and supports it with inspired structure and nuanced accompaniment. The track harkens to the pop sensibilities of XTC and Tears for Fears with its wide panoramic sound and radio-friendly approach. Boni Boyer provides excellent backing vocals that bring the selection home. This song makes it easy to see why Penn has become an excellent soundtrack creator. Invisible has a great guitar riff that underpins Penn’s examination on the crush of obsession and the cruelty of being too shy to act upon desire. Penn points out that there is both comfort and agony in going unnoticed. This song pairs beautiful with Cupid’s got a Brand New Gun. The narrative of this song shows that Cupid has gotten an upgrade in weaponry but still is as inaccurate as ever in hitting the right mark. Fully captured in this torch song is the ache of love when it is unreciprocated. The lyric that sums it up best is, “Wounded unto death by something called love.”
Every time I hear the track Big House I think of Crowded House’s debut album and specifically the track, “That’s What I Call Love”. This uptempo rocker could have come straight off that release, but what makes it especially Penn’s own is its pithy insightfulness. The song is a fantastic lead into Battle Room which is a melancholy offering laden with sensitive observations. Again Beatlesque in structure and sonics it looks at the façade we attempt to present and the truth that lies beneath. This is encapsulated in the lyric “windows, cover the windows don’t you know the neighbour’s talk.” This is yet another song that gets under your skin and you find yourself humming it for days.
Evenfall provides a joyous ending to the release. This rollicking 50’s inspired rocker is loaded with jaunty horns and sax. It is a distillation of Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. “Evenfall” is a delightful tribute to those greats modernized and the final tilde on a brilliant release.
It is unfortunate that changes in the direction of the Music environment left Penn along with many of his fellow labourers in enlighten popular music set adrift and lost to memory. In the upcoming era that was filled with hyperbole, Penn was never really comfortable with doing the things required to make nice with the Popular Music world. Penn would release another critically acclaimed album, Free for All in 1992 and then seem to vanish from the music world. However that was far from true, instead, he morphed into an acclaimed film composer and continues to periodically release singer/songwriter projects. To date, his album count is 7 albums in total the latest, Tarot and Tea released in 2007. He has numerous soundtrack scores to his credit including his work on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight and Boogie Nights. Additionally, he has along with his wife Aimee Mann continued to fight for independent music performers. They have formed United Musicians; an independent musical collective founded on the principle that every artist should be able to retain their copyright ownership of work they create. Thankfully before he went on to a career that is as big as or bigger than his pop debut he delivered the jewel that is March, a timeless paean to literate singer/songwriters circa 1989.