Saturday, November 04, 2006

This & That

This post is a bit rambling and disjointed. I apologize. I don't know how to organize my thoughts and be a fanboy at the same time, apparently.

I had no idea when I heard Michael Penn closing out this week's House that he would keep popping up this week. I heard him again last night on a rerun of Scrubs (medical shows love the guy) and even my friend Otis Bizzaro invoked him through his very Penn-ish, murky and oddly wonderful cover of "Blueberry Hill." So I thought this might be a good time to talk about him some. I haven't had a proper "music geek" post in a while.

Most of you probably know at least one of his songs, either from his early career when he got a fair amount of airplay or from film and television, where the people who make those sorts of decisions seem to have decided his songs would sound great over the closing montage. His "No Myth," which even he now admits is likely better known as "Romeo in Black Jeans" was in heavy rotation on Mtv for a while, back in 1990. As was "This & That," whose title I swiped for this post.

The people I know who love his music are almost exclusively people who take music very seriously. My friend Rich, in finding out that map of july used to cover "Brave New World," excitedly asked me if we did the lighting of the match part (a background bit of noise toward the end). And it occurs to me now that at one time or another in my old band's history, we had covers of four or five of his songs somewhere in there, making him the most-covered artist in our repertoire. So we probably would owe him some money if we'd ever made any.

He has a great voice, and his guitar playing certainly impresses me (although I don't know a whole lot about guitar). Craig, one of the best guitarists I know, says he likes Mr. Penn's songs because "the next chord isn't what you think it's going to be."

He's married to Aimee Mann, and in 2000 they toured together. They shared a band, and had a comedian come out and handle the between-song banter. Aside from being one of the most entertaining shows I had ever seen, I look at that show as the real beginning of my friendship with Craig. I think it was the first time we had done something together without other band members around. So I suppose I have to thank Mr. Penn for that as well.

I saw him play twice in 2005. The first time, I had learned too late that he was doing a small tour, and by the time I was aware of it, the Chicago date was sold out. Ian suggested we see him in Madison, WI instead, so we drove up and saw him play his heart out in an otherwise depressing little club with no real stage. It was a beautifully warm spring day, and I remember the trip as a great time, although Ian likely recalls it more due to the conversation we had before the show, which ultimately led to the dissolution of map of july. When he came back to Chicago in September, a bunch of us went to catch him at Schuba's.

It'd be hard for me to describe what his music means to me. I'm not the kind of fan who checks in with the artists I like a whole lot. I don't tend to read their blogs or stop in at their websites very often. I am often the last to learn about an upcoming tour or a new album. But since 1990, I doubt there's been a month where I haven't played a Michael Penn album. And if we go by averages, it's probably closer to weekly. I seem to recall listening to MP4 (his 2000 release) over and over again for something like three months. Just ask anyone who got into my car during that period.

Not to take anything away from his little brother Sean or his late brother Chris, but Michael is the member of that family who has provided me with real solace. He's the one I find intriguing. Mr. Penn had a rough time with labels, getting kicked around way more often than he deserves, and so has only put out 5 albums in the last 17 years, but he continues to get work that is less public. He crops up here and there as a producer, writes a film score (notably Boogie Nights, and the new Zach Braff film) and then disappears again before most of us can spot him.

I don't do a whole lot of product plugging on here, but here's a link to buy some of his stuff on Amazon: Michael Penn. I highly recommend you pick up the reissue of March, since it was out of print for a long time, and now comes with his second album (also long out of print) Free-For-All in one package. That's a great place to start. Anything you cannot find there, you can find on eBay. Keep in mind, though, that eBay purchases don't really help him pay the rent.

I think Mr. Penn may have actually visited The Moon Topples last night as well. When I requested his "friendship" on MySpace, I got my approval very late on a Friday night. And while checking my site statistics this morning, I noticed a visitor from Los Angeles had stopped in late in the night, referred by a Technorati search for the words "Michael Penn." No doubt he was checking for possible defamation suits. Or maybe just seeing if anyone recognized his song on House this week.

In any case, whether it was him or simply a fan of his: thanks for stopping by. It gave me the last little push I needed to do this post in honor of one of my favorite artists.

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