Sunday, October 11, 2009
FREE FOR ALL
Quite often, in the midst of the feeding frenzies that accompany trends in music, a record will quietly appear that has little to do with the current flavor of the month. Without the haircut, ridiculous uniform or whatever other element that is au courant with the great unwashed masses, there is little hope of said release attracting much revenue, let alone attention. In the early 90s, with grunge all the rage, one such disc hit stores to the sound of one hand clapping.
Far too many of these stories are prevalent in the music business, lined up like empties in a dive bar at closing time. This one concerns the criminally underrated Michael Penn, brother of Sean, husband of Aimie Mann (also an excellent song writer) who is generally noted for his “hit” (“No Myth”) from his debut solo album, March.
His second full length effort, Free for All, is quite worthy of your time, should you be fortunate enough to find a copy. This is not to say that the contents will change your life, though you will be pleasantly surprised if you favor slightly dark, melodic pop.
1992 was not a banner year for those who mined this genre.
There were more than a few artists at that time (Neil Finn, Karl Wallinger, Lenny Kravitz, Matthew Sweet) who were taking a page from the "Golden Book of Mid-Sixties Song Structure" . Personally, I believe that 1966 was a high watermark in terms of creativity and saw the construction of a template that has been adopted by countless performers ever since. Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Beatles Revolver, The Stones Aftermath, The Byrds Fifth Dimension…the list of gems from that fabled year is staggering. All would figure prominently in shaping the listening tastes of Michael Penn.
While he does wear some of the stylistic devices of his influences on his sleeve, the material has a twinkle in its eye and a cutting wit behind it that often belies the straightforward nature of the tunes. Grey clouds hover over this set right from the opener ("Long Way Down") which is a model of economy in arrangement, with a hint of bile in the lyric.
Now I would suppose that I'm not the only one and one never knows... but I got a feeling she's been sleeping with the whole wide world
His musical partner in crime, keyboardist Patrick Warren, fleshes out the soundscape by employing a Chamberlin (named for its inventor Harry Chamberlin) to provide the ethereal coloring that adds much to the retro feel of this disc. First unveiled in 1946, it is a musical instrument that was also able to play pre-recorded magnetic tapes and was the precursor to the Mellotron, which is functionally the same thing.
Here's an interesting interview with Chamberlin himself, should you have a moment to spare.
All things considered, Free For All showcases a writer who can turn a very important trick: Sounding upbeat when the subject matter is often fairly heavy and serious. Highlights are "Free Time", "Seen the Doctor", "By the Book" and the brilliant closer, "Now We're Even". Tastefully executed, it really doesn't have a bad track out of the ten. Your reward in all of this, aside from sturdy melodies, will be the multi-layered wordplay, at which he excels.
I loved a girl once beyond compare, She saw inside me and gave me air, She was assisting my surgery my heart was opened as she put a mask on me, I'm breathing but it's become a chore, now that you've seen the doctor don't call me anymore
Repeated listening will reveal the charms of this record, as it won't immediately grab you by the lapels and demand that you sit still for its duration. Out of step with contemporary tastes, it's a great pity that this one simply got lost in the shuffle when it was brand new.