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Michael Penn... Bunker Hill

Look What the Fans Drug In:

A Tribute to the music of Michael Penn

Introduction | March | Free For All | Resigned | MP4 | Mr. Hollywood Jr, 1947 | P.P.S. | Downloads

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"And this was the Year That Was, 1947."


This wonderful, refreshingly clear, straightforward power pop record takes its theme from the year in the album title. Lots happened that year. The GI's returned to civilian life from WWII, the CIA was formed, the Blacklist began, as did the Cold War, the transistor was invented, and Chuck Yeager broke the speed of sound. But all of that is merely the backdrop for songs about relationships, some romantic, some not.

The two songs that aren't about relationships mostly are about inventions, such as "The Transistor," or "The Television Set Waltz." Both are instrumentals, one sinister and electronic, to point out what a revolution, good and bad, the transistor caused, and the other celebrates TV broadcasts going national, or if you don't like TV, mourning that fact.

The relationship songs bring to mind another album, a rather unlikely one, but a good comparison nevertheless, Donald Fagen's The Nightfly. Fagen, the former Steely Dan lead singer, made this autobiographical album in 1982, about a young man growing up in the late 50s and early 60s, fantasizing about what he'd like to be, his place in the world, who he'd love and like. Lyrically, those songs were topical, about being a DJ at a station that played jazz all night long, or a diplomat working in Cuba as Castro came to power.

What that album shares with Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 is that Penn is wondering how he'd fit in with what was happening in 1947, who he'd meet, love or like, and his reactions to world events. A good example is "On Automatic," a song that zooms by gracefully in three minutes, all jangly guitars, flowing drums, and optimism. Fagen's "I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year)" has those same qualities, although his song was jazz/pop. There is the same optimism, sense of hope for the future and discovery of it, the same buoyancy.

There is one song, though, on Penn's album that could be interpreted as a dig at the times we live in now. "Walter Reed," the opener, is indeed about the famous Army hospital which cared for injured soldiers in WWII and is serving the same function for soldiers wounded in Iraq. Penn might be saying that he's mad another war is on, and unlike WWII, a war that never should have been fought, that he's had enough of war and the horrible changes it brings. It's that melding of WWII and this new war that gives this mid tempo, nicely swinging and eloquent power pop song a darker cast than some of the songs of the album. That Penn is also looking at today in this song is a nice way to balance the past, and what the past means today.


The covers of the songs on Mr. Hollywood Jr. are tremendous. The Breakups version of "Mary Lynn" plays up the power pop, as well as the psychedelic accents. The backwards, treated guitar is wonderful, as are the drums crashing in the back ground. Plasticsouls's cover of "You know How," goes for a classic feel, something that could have been recorded for a 60s LP. Buzzy guitar provides nice textures, as do rattling drums. On both of these songs, the Penn like qualities of the vocals, in the sense of sharp, precise singing, are as much a tribute to Penn, as the songs themselves.


Andrea Zils' version of "O.K" takes on new meaning when a woman sings it, the emotions of the song are accentuated, and like Penn, with a light touch, which also goes for the piano playing, it's just the right amount of music. Zils has this to say about the song. "This song holds a lot of meaning for me.  When I was listening to MHJ 1947, I was going through a very serious post-partum depression.  It was a dark period in my life.  I felt that my life was over and I'd never get better. Listening to O.K. made me feel understood, even though not all the lyrics applied to my situation. Depression is very isolating; you feel all alone even when you have a great support system.  O.K. helped me realize that I'm not the first person to feel such pessimism and despair.  And musically, it
reminded me of a lullaby, which I found comforting."


Spencer Bayles take on "Denton Road" is this, "it's an utterly beautiful, instantly classic
melody, coupled with lyrics that are at once ambitious and ambiguous. By stripping away at Michael Penn's original arrangement, we've tried to get to the emotional heart of the song - hopefully this won't offend too many of the hardcore Penn-ites!"


Bayles, who plays a quiet guitar, keyboards and other instruments quietly, and David Thake, on shaker and others, do exactly what they mean to, stripping the song down to its core, highlighting its calm power.

Grant Prusi's comments about "The Television Set Waltz" are, "I've always been interested in history.  One of my favorite time periods from 1920-1960.  I thought that it would be logical for me to do this track since it's from that time period."


Prusi has done exactly that with his cover. The song sounds like it could have been recorded in 1947, on the equipment that was around at the time, complete with pops and crackles in the background. It is just him at the piano, and you could waltz to it as much as Penn's version. It has a memorable melody, and in it's own understated way, as grand as the Penn original.


To close out our ambitious, sometimes messy collection of cover versions is Tom Loiacono's "Millionaire". He comments that "when I think of a Michael Penn song, I usually think of a richly layered, complexly orchestrated, masterfully arranged piece of music. These songs grab hold of you and don't let you go. In stark contrast to his more elaborately textured songs, "(P.S.) Millionaire" strikes you with its sheer simplicity, like someone whispering at a podium: you are compelled to stop and listen because they must be saying something of importance. The song is understated, yet the impression it leaves you with is one of quiet desperation. This is what drew me into this song it's so different in its arrangement compared to his regular fare, but it's equally captivating. It's a postscript to an album already brimming with meaning and emotion that you wonder what he could have left out to necessitate a "P.S". But when you listen to Michael Penn's "Millionaire", you'll know."


-- Andrea Weiss




Denton Road Spencer Bayles: vocals, guitars, keyboards & removed xylophone
Dave "One Take" Thake: shaker, tambourine & removed e-chime
Mary LynnThe Breakups
The Television Set WaltzGrant Prusi: piano & voice
You Know HowPlasticsoul
A Bad SignBob Reid
O.K.Andrea Zils
(P.S.) MillionaireTom Loiacono: guitar & vocals
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Introduction | March | Free For All | Resigned | MP4 | Mr. Hollywood Jr, 1947 | P.P.S. | Downloads

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