- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2005

Michael Penn

Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947

Mimeograph/spinART Records

The first scene in “Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947,” Michael Penn’s sketch of a concept album, is of a G.I. returning home from World War II, weary, defeated and dislocated: “I’m the walking wounded/I’d say it to your face/but I can’t find my place,” Mr. Penn sings in “Walter Reed,” named for the famous Army hospital (soon to go on the chopping block in the next round of military base closures).

The soldier’s lament might as well be Mr. Penn’s, though to a far less life-threatening extent. The singer-songwriter is both a one-hit wonder (“No Myth,” from 1989’s “March”) and, for a small but devoted following, a continual favorite and an industry veteran.

Yet this brother of a famous actor (Sean) and husband of a more successful singer-songwriter (Aimee Mann) has had trouble staying on his feet in the music business, trading blows with a major label that, he said, refused to free him from a contract while also prohibiting him from putting out new music.

Taking a page out of Miss Mann’s do-it-yourself playbook, Mr. Penn formed his own imprint, Mimeograph Records, for the release of “Mr. Hollywood,” his first LP in five years. It’s a typically crafty and modestly successful work from Mr. Penn, who continues in the vein of Beatles pop-rock and Dylan-style intellectualism.

Don’t let the “concept album” bugaboo scare you: Most of the songs here are personal meditations or story-song narratives; politics and history are kept abstractly on the margins. For instance, it takes some effort to trace the steps of the song “18 September,” a minute-and-a-half of aquatic noise and engine hum. A scan of Mr. Penn’s breezy liner notes and a Google search reveals Sept. 18 as the date of the passage of the National Security Act and the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947. That task having been completed, it takes a left-leaning disposition to take this for something ominous.

Mr. Penn sees 1947 as a very important year for all sorts of cultural-historical reasons, some of them sinister. There’s the partitioning of Palestine, the double-super-secret mind-control experiments of Project Paperclip and the Hollywood blacklist, which ensnared Mr. Penn’s father, the actor-director Leo Penn.

On a lighter note, Mr. Penn pays tribute to the invention of the transistor radio in another brief instrumental, “The Transistor,” a bright, tense piece of string music that Mr. Penn may have pocketed from one of his movie scores. The final concept-y interlude, “The Television Set Waltz,” heralds the arrival of TV broadcasting on the West Coast.

Basically, the Smithsonian stuff has nothing to do with the meat of the album — yearning, literate folk-pop tunes such as “Pretending,” “A Bad Sign,” “O.K.” and “(P.S.) Millionaire” and thumping, mid-tempo rock fare such as “Room 712, the Apache” and “On Automatic,” on which the customarily distressed Mr. Penn allows that “things are looking up in the meantime.”

The latter song is a sweet reward to the listener, who, if he’s a fan of Mr. Penn’s, has had to wait half a decade for 10 proper pop songs littered loosely inside a schema that tries to blend popular history with conspiratorial gravity.

“Mr. Hollywood” is either the most subtly intelligent work of 2005 or the sign of a singer-songwriter with too much time on his hands.

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