Sunday, July 26, 2009

After A Long Hiatus

I'm blogging again, and Michael Penn has released new music. Both tend to occur as frequently as last week's solar eclipse, although one might argue that Mr. Penn's music is a tad more significant to the world-at-large.

So whether or not we can credit the moon obscuring the sun with putting all this into motion, the fact is that singer/songwriter/film scorer Michael Penn has released three new songs online. That's a marvelous thing.

And at least two of them actually sound...happy? "I love you as it happens" and "This is the life"? Quick -- somebody check the Penn/Mann rec room for a pod!

Turns out you can cancel that call to the FBI's Bodysnatching Division. First of all, these newly-released songs were produced for an IFC mini-series, "Bollywood Hero" starring Chris Kattan, so you can expect the lyrics are at least partially plot-centric.

[I've never been a huge fan of Kattan's SNL work - but I'd watch six hours of his Mango riding a CGI-winged Mr. Peepers over the Roxbury marquee if Michael Penn wrote the music for it. (I should photoshop that for this space, if only time permitted...it's creepy/funny in my head anyway.)]

But, instead, a photo from Michael's April 2007 tour...if you play a kazoo onstage, you have to figure that eventually it will appear online.

Secondly, a closer listen to the songs tells us "the rains will come, the winds will howl" and "sometimes it's nothing but struggle and strife." Yep, that's Michael Penn alright.

It's been nearly four years since the critically-acclaimed Penn released his last album of new songs, "Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947." And two years since his last U.S. tour, where he unveiled the (as yet unreleased) song Making Me Three For Three. Since then, his musical output has been confined to instrumentals: scoring a number of indie films including "Sunshine Cleaning" (if you don't count his pre-election musical contribution to the Not Spencer series on arubberdoor.)

Of the three new Bollywood Hero tracks, "Untouchable" seems the most soundtrack-y. It's interesting, infinitely listenable, but I'm not going to be humming it in the shower.

But the chorus of "Two Worlds" has been looping in my head since I first heard it. It's a duet -- MP sharing vocals with Aimee Mann...at its core is a straight-up pop song that gets all silk-and-sequined with sitar and other jingly things (technical musical term.) The song's conclusion needs the mini-series to explain. Before that though, some really nice Penn/Mann harmony. And extra points for working the word "expatriate" into the lyrics.

There also seems to be a "No Myth" nod in the beginning of the song (the down-strum of the guitar?)and perhaps the drum at the end is too. Speaking of that Romeo in black jeans, listed on IFC's website: an "exclusive Bollywood-inspired reimagination of Penn's hit 'No Myth'" performed by the Bombay Dub Orchestra. Another oldie from March, "Brave New World," is also featured in episode 2.

But it's the track "This Is The Life" that I have fallen in love with. It opens as a pared-down piano ballad. As the song weaves its way with a powerful hook, the Penn production ramps up and turns it into an anthem for the disengaged. Or maybe a call to arms. (Is that a fife in the last verse?)

The beauty of it, as with all of Penn's best lyrical work, is that he takes a simple phrase and makes it infer at least three different things. And while you get the impression he means to be telling you all three simultaneously, he leaves enough wiggle room to wrap his basic idea around your own individual circumstance.

So, the listener could hear "This Is the Life" as someone savoring a particularly perfect moment in time, with tinges of c'est la vie...or a carpe diem reminder to focus on the present - the here and now - because it's fleeting.

Or (and maybe this is my singular pathology) the song serves as a reminder that life does not wait for you while you're off in your head, building your own little cyberspace monuments to yourself. In the meantime, you're missing out on some good sh*t -- and losing sense of what is real life and what is virtually...nothing. THIS is the life.

Now that I've dissected that four word phrase like it's Michael Jackson's autopsy...listen...and see what you hear.


'Bollywood Hero' premieres August 6, 7 and 8 at 10 PM ET/PT on IFC. A breakdown of each episode's music can be found here.


This Is The Life

People used to call me lucky
Never understood the word
Thought it was a happenstance
A penny turning up by chance
But on second glance

Well, sometimes it's hard, but you get by
And sometimes it's nothing but struggle and strife
But not in the here and now
This is the life
Yeah, this is the life.

Sure there's gonna be a future
Yesterdays are piling up
And I remember thinking how
As much as effort will allow
There's no time like now

'Cause sometimes it's hard, but you get by
And sometimes it's nothing but struggle and strife
But not in the here and now
This is the life
Yeah, this is the life.

At the point you realize
It's vaporized - it's already gone
And you can sit around
Another town
Or try to move on
A Ponce de Leon
Out on his own

So everybody up and at 'em
Everybody draw the blinds
Anyone without a clue
Is wondering what they can do
And looking at you

Well, sometimes it's hard, but you get by
And sometimes it's nothing but struggle and strife
Well, not in the here and now
This is the life
Yeah this is the life
Yeah, this is the life
Yeah, this is(the)life.


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