Singer-songwriter follows wife Aimee Mann's concept album with a concept album of his own.
On the surface, it's difficult to dislike Mr. Hollywood, Jr. 1947. Like all of Michael Penn's records, it's delicately tailored and meticulously polished pop -- look closely and you may see your reflection in the sound waves. Everything's in its right place: internal rhymes are cleverly inserted into each couplet, instruments add proper punctuation, and the smart chord progressions pick up the major or drop to the minor with impeccable timing.
In fact, the opening song "Walter Reed" is a perfect example of how Penn can do everything right, and, furthermore, how he so easily appeals to legions of listeners weaned on Beatlesque stateliness. It's an exquisite composition, the blissful chorus tumbling down to the hardheaded bridge, piano embellishments empathizing with the narrative's self-pity and exasperation. Penn bares his eager Macca tendencies here, buttering the reflective singer-songwriter fare with oodles of aching melody.
Still, as elegantly constructed as it may be, something's missing on Mr. Hollywood, Jr.. It's all mid-tempo indifference, lacking the headiness of March (1989) or the power trio abandon of Resigned (1997) -- even 2000's MP4: Days Since a Lost Time Accident (which, until now, had the dishonor of being Penn's weakest effort) has more instances of sustained engagement. The irony of Mr. Hollywood, Jr. is that it's Penn's first independent release after four albums for unsupportive major labels. Free from the corporate vice grip, Penn does little more than issue an artistic sigh of relief; Mr. Hollywood, Jr. is beautiful but boring, exemplified by the shoulder-shrugging provocations of "You Know How" and "O.K.". The latter song is especially disappointing: its prosaic title and lyrical construct are the kinds of easy ways out one wouldn't expect from a man with such a contortionist's knack for wordplay. Even "Mary Lynn", an attempt at an uplifting folk hymn played on an amplified dulcimer, has more imminent drudgery than determined bounce in its rhythm track of foot stomps and handclaps. And although the budget is undoubtedly smaller this time around, some of the production's oversights are inexcusable -- who forgot to replace the synth brass with the real thing?
The repeated instrumental insistence that this is a concept album doesn't help invigorate its flow, either. The brief ambient interludes ("The Transistor", "18 September", "The Television Set Waltz") that reference some of the record's alleged themes -- emerging technology, the nation's covert loss of innocence -- thankfully refuse to manifest themselves in the songs proper. Perhaps the intention was to rein the songs into this sepia-toned historical context, but the result mucks up an already plodding pace. Inspiration must run in the family, for Penn's wife Aimee Mann also released a concept album this year (The Forgotten Arm); however, where Mann sustained a stylish character arc over the course of her record, Penn allows everything to be swamped by the set-up. (Incidental aside: both Penn and Mann drop a liberal number of "baby"s into their respective albums.) The extra baggage weighing down Mr. Hollywood, Jr. isn't necessarily the geographical allusions in the lyrics (Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Simi Valley, the Roosevelt Hotel, Santa Ana winds, Vegas' Apache Hotel), but the lifeless stream of mid-tempo soft rock that fails to support them.
Penn releases his own music very patiently -- Mr. Hollywood, Jr. 1947 is only his fifth album in 16 years -- so it's a bit of a letdown that the five-year wait following MP4 is relieved in such a lackluster manner. And although it may be troubling to some that he hasn't put out a great record in almost ten years, at least he remains indisputably likeable. Greatness, after all, may be attained once again by fine-tuning the furniture: "Nothing's changed," he sings in "Room 712, the Apache", "Just rearranged for you to fix."