March (1989) ***1/2
Michael Penn was another one of those tasteful singer-songwriters with a penchant for folky Beatlesesque power-pop who emerged around the turn of the '90s to bid the glossy synth-dominated '80s adieu. His debut single and biggest hit, "No Myth," sounded like a fresh marvel on the airwaves at the time, with its crisp, sprightly acoustic strum and clever, literate lyrics best remembered for the troubadour's query, "What if I were Romeo in black jeans?" The followup, "This and That," was nearly as good if not nearly as big a hit, and between the singles you have a string of subtler, less immediately catchy and somewhat less fulfilling cuts: album tracks, in other words. But no, just because the two singles outshine the rest doesn't mean that this is hit singles + filler: give them a chance to sink in, and the remaining cuts peek out to show themselves as finely cut gems of craft. "Half Harvest," suffers the most because as track #2 it sits uncomfortably between opener "No Myth," and track #3 "This and That," and thus amounts to the least memorable track simply due to its placing; when, in fact, if you listen to it in isolation, it leaps out as a thoughtful, well-constructed tune and one of the album's strongest cuts. The entire first side of the album is consistently excellent, in fact, being rounded out with the rapid-fire Dylanesque wordplay of "Brave New World," and closing with the tender but rueful ballad, "Innocent One". The second side is somewhat shakier, with the cleverness of "Cupid's Got a Brand New Gun," rather forced and excessive, and "Big House," rather ponderous, but the not-quite-bedlameque "Bedlam Boys," and the moody, "Battle Room," are back up the game, and the horn-infested closer, "Evenfall" is kind of fun. Penn's sharp baritone and acoustic-based power-pop style bring Lindsey Buckingham comparisons to mind; so, anyone interested in a Fleetwood Mac album consisting solely of Buckingham songs, this one's a reasonable facsimile. Well, you could check out one of Buckingham's own several solo albums, but I've heard all of those and they're all disappointing. This one's better.
P.S. I almost got through this review without mentioning the obligatory family ties. Yes, Mr. Penn is indeed the brother of Sean and Chris. And he later married Aimee Mann.