Sunday, August 21, 2005

My review of Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947

As the cliche goes, you can't judge a book by its cover-- but one look at the slightly askew portrait that graces the cover of Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947 and you know that there will be more to this CD than what first meets the eye (or ear, in this case.)

Fans of Michael Penn will likely be enthralled by his latest CD, as he continues his tradition of presenting the listener with thoughtful, intelligent lyrics supported by memorable pop hooks.

But it's the darkness below the surface of the glimmer that makes this record hold up to repeated listening.

In some ways, this may be his most subversive offering yet. The songs are ostensibly set in 1947, but are ultimately a reflection of present day dilemmas: the relationship moored in deception -- "It's like a play, and the words that I'll say are not for you. They're for the costume...on a ruse you've come to be depending, baby I'm pretending..." ("Pretending") -- or defeat "I've lost the will for fighting over everything..." ("Walter Reed.")

Still it's not all doom and gloom in black and white, rather Penn focuses on the shades of gray that more accurately reflect reality in today's Technicolor world. Even the most upbeat tune "On Automatic" seems to suggest, "Yeah, things are looking up, but it's probably all going to hell tomorrow."

"Denton Road" presents one with the unusual perspective and perhaps a bit of dark humor (?) as the recently departed overlooks his viewing with the remark "what's it say about me that I'm bored" and the final verse ends with "I'm in over my head."

"Room 712, The Apache" -- the Apache being a long-gone Las Vegas casino [built in 1932, it was the first Vegas resort to have an elevator -- your trivia for the day] -- makes terrific use of a gambling metaphor -- "Baby bet everything, you're gonna lose. But believe it or not, you'll be highly amused. Because what's it worth anyway? It's just another broken part. Give 'em your artificial heart."

The metaphors are plentiful throughout Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947, and the songs layered with meaning...and while I've focused on lyrics here, what makes this a record worth owning and listening to (repeatedly) is the way these little stories are presented with melodies that engage and production that enlightens.

The only song I'm not loving is "Mary Lynn" -- while its chanting quality and dulcimer suggest a down home revival sing-a-long, it is too repetitive for my tastes.

The CD booklet contains additional narrative that ties the songs together (but not too neatly, that's not Mr. Penn's style) and creates a film noir setting.

The final track is an unlisted one --"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" -- which manages to be simultaneously poignant and indignant (parts of aforementioned indignance seem rather pointedly directed towards the man who currently occupies the Oval Office. Bravo!)

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