Look What the Fans Drug In:
A Tribute to the music of Michael Penn
MARCH: "Play the one about the black pants!"
March's eleven tracks run the relationship gamut, exploring the many shades of attraction, romance and rejection. While Penn's lyrical inscrutability usually prevents his heart from appearing on his sleeve (conversely, he's more inclined to let the bile slap your face), this early album often features an emotional earnestness not found in much of his subsequent albums. Exuberant youthfulness characterize the early songs of romance – the chances we'll take, the delusional sacrifices we'll make. After all, Penn will take a stab at love rather than a chance for heaven itself! Songs like "This and That" or "Invisible" suggest protagonists who will humble themselves to reach for love, even if loves ultimately turns its back (and in case you were wondering, the waitress was real). And a road trip is filled with surreal encounters and an aura of sensuality (Brave New World).
Speaking of road trips, on a cross-Nebraska college journey of his own, tribute contributor Ray Hughes sang the entirety of March acapella to friends when the car tape deck broke down (even humming "Disney is a Snow Cone"!). "What I lacked in vocal finesse, I made up for in fervor", he says, and then married "the only woman I knew who had purchased March when it came out and still treasured it almost a decade later". Incidentally, he recreated the surely memorable road trip for his own recording, sitting in his car with a tape recorder, where he "banged out two takes".
Derek Anderson was on his own countryside drive with the "windows down and the wind in our faces when "This & That" came on...I misheard the lyrics and thought Michael was singing, "How do burning canyons feel?" Anderson sang the wrong lyrics for years until his now-wife corrected him, but he still likes the idea of "trying to understand how a burning canyon feels, but I have to admit the original lyrics make more sense." Darin Henderson proudly provides "a very rough version of "No Myth", with me banging the keyboard of an old Casio for the elementary drum sound. I can't sing worth a lick, but I love MP, and I just HAD to cover this song."
In the latter half of the album, beside nostalgic musings of childhood ("Big House", with its evocation of Ding-Dong-Ditch), the romances sour and even shatter under the effort. "Battle Room" performer Audrius Sabbie dedicates the song to veterans of war and comments, "if Battle Rooms exist (and they do), then I'm Lord Wellington – that still hasn't won his Waterloo".
The characters in Penn's songs sometimes seem overmatched by their own desires. Be careful what you wish for - Cupid may visit, but rarely has his strike sounded so violent and foreboding. While Penn's live performances of "Cupid's Got a Brand New Gun" left an indelible impression on Cindy Graham, she wants listeners of her own version to evoke torch song meets David Lynch: "Imagine a gal with a Veronica Lake hairstyle in a satin dress, maybe elbow length gloves, clutching a ribbon mike in a smoky club. Maybe in black & white. At least that's what I'm thinking when I sing it (but I'm just weird that way)."
Tribute artist Jill Sibley long related to the more problematic shadings of "Evenfall", as she was struggling to hold on to her own failing marriage, "not realizing that the person and the marriage were toxic to me. The high-energy rock and roll style really made that song stand out to me as well."
Despite fans' affection for his debut album, the artist himself has a hard time returning to it, and only does so when referencing a song for his live set. Penn looks "back to stuff on March and remember how I agonized over certain things... now I realize that many of the things that I struggled to make "perfect", suck. While other bits that I let slide or were happy accidents are the better moments". Ever the perfectionist, Penn would change "many many many things" about March, starting with his voice. Making the album, he chafed under the producer's efforts driving him to be a more conventional "Singer". He comments that "it wasn't until some of the second album, but really Resigned that I started to sound like me".
-- Dan Armstrong
COVER ALBUM CREDITS:
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