Free At Last, Michael Penn Attempts A Comeback With Mr. Hollywood Jr.

NEW YORK — The message conveyed at Michael Penn’s performance at Joe’s Pub a few weeks back was simple: He’s back, and he’s got a new record.

It’s not that extraordinary; really, unless, like Penn, you’ve just emerged from one of the music industry’s longest-running contract skirmishes. “My father fought in World War II. He’d have to laugh at the fact that I’ve been a captive of the Axis powers the better part of my adult life,” Penn said of Japanese-owned Sony and German-owned BMG at the industry-only show.

Penn’s 1989 single “No Myth” (“What if I was Romeo in black jeans?”) propelled the singer/songwriter brother of more famous Hollywood siblings Sean and Chris into the top 20 and garnered him an MTV Video Music Award. But a poorly received sophomore effort, Free-for-All, and resulting RCA Records contract woes soon followed.

Though Penn soldiered on through two solid Sony releases, Resigned and MP4: Days Since a Lost Time Accident, lightning failed to strike twice. Worse, Sony retained the rights to Penn’s very name: Until last fall, Michael Penn didn’t own

Penn stayed busy behind the scenes through the late ’90s and early ’00s. He scored Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” produced tracks for the Wallflowers and Liz Phair, and toured with his singer/songwriter wife, Aimee Mann.

Perhaps bolstered by his wife’s independent success, and free from the contractual obligations of Sony, Penn is back with Mr. Hollywood Jr. The 13-song set is firmly anchored in a nearly forgotten, post-war Los Angeles.

“1947 is the year everything changed. And it really felt to me, just as I was writing these songs, that everything that was going on around me in some way led back to that year. Everything was coming to fruition: GIs like my father were back from World War II, the National Security Act of 1947 established the CIA, and the U.N. partitioned Palestine. America became the first country to be in the position to take over the whole world, but didn’t, but really did.”

Performing at the darkly lit and intimate Joe’s Pub, Penn’s older material stood the test of time. “No Myth,” “Long Way Down” and “Bunker Hill” sat squarely with songs culled from Mr. Hollywood Jr. Further, though, his set seemed to comment on his return to a stage now crowded with acoustic-strumming teenage heartthrobs like Tyler Hilton and Jesse McCartney. It’s difficult to hear Penn wailing the refrain of “Don’t Let Me Go” and not imagine that he’s pleading for his audience back. Still, he admitted later, it’s “Out of My Hands.”

Some might consider Penn’s return after a nearly 10-year hiatus brave, or stupid. Or both.

“I don’t think of it as bravery, as much as stubbornness,” Penn said.

“There’s a certain exhilaration at starting over and paying my dues again,” he noted just prior to the performance. “Performing doesn’t come naturally to me. But you know, optimism is a funny thing.

“There’s an instrument that I use sometimes called a Marx-a-phone,” he continued. “It’s sort of like a hammer dulcimer. And in the 1920s and ’30s, they would sell them door-to-door. That’s [kind of like] what I’m doing now.”

Penn’s door-to-door, stage-to-stage tour in advance of Mr. Hollywood Jr. wrapped up in Los Angeles Sunday night. He hopes to hit the road with a full band in the fall.

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