March (1989, 42.32) ***½/TTT½
This & That
Brave New World
Disney's a Snow Cone/Bedlam Boys
Cupid's Got a Brand New Gun
Free-for-All (1992, 41.11) ****/TTTT½
|Long Way Down (Look What the Cat Drug in)
Seen the Doctor
By the Book
Slipping My Mind
Now We're Even
Free Time (1993, 17.37) ****/T½Free Time (remix)
Rising Steam (live)
By the Book (live)
Seen the Doctor (acoustic)
Resigned (1997, 39.18) ****½/TTTT
Like Egypt Was
Out of My Hands
All That That Implies
|Small Black Box
I Can Tell
MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident) (2000, 39.36) ****/TTT½
Don't Let Me Go
Out of its Misery
Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 (2005, 38.24) ***½/T
Room 712, the Apache
Television Set Waltz
|You Know How
Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams (1994) ***/T½[Michael Penn contributes]
Rare on Air, Vol. 1: KCRW Live Performances (1994) ***/TT½[Michael Penn contributes]
Boogie Nights (1997) ***/T[Michael Penn & Patrick Warren contribute]
The Big Top (Theme From Boogie Nights)
Godzilla: The Album (1998) ***/T[Michael Penn contributes]
Macy Day Parade
Michael (brother of Sean and Christopher, also Mr. Aimee Mann) Penn had a major hit on his hand with his first album, 1989's March, with its incisive, intelligent songwriting; 'pop for grown-ups' indeed. He re-teamed up with his early-'80s keyboard player, the redoubtable Patrick Warren, with the happy result that the album's sugar-coated with Chamberlin. Some reports would have it that it's over-commercialised, but to my ears it's an only slightly poppier version of his later albums, with tracks such as Disney's A Snow Cone/Bedlam Boys and Cupid's Got a Brand New Gun giving the lie to the 'commercial' jibe. Notable Chamby moments include the flutes on High Time and Big House and while it's got nothing to do with tape replay, there's some beautiful harmonium at the beginning of Disney's A Snow Cone/Bedlam Boys. Not quite Mr. Penn's best album, but still pretty damn' good and reasonable Chamberlin, too.
Now, I've known for some time that Penn's a major Chamby fan, but Free-for-All is RIDICULOUS!! Almost every damn' track has loads of the thing played by Warren; strings, choir, brass, cellos, steel guitar even (I think), you name it, it's here. Given how well the instrument usually hides in the mix, there's no attempt to conceal it here; right at the front of the mix, above the guitars. It's so good to hear this sort of thing done well without any awful 'contemporary' (read: crap) production tricks; how dated would the Doors sound now if they hadn't gone along with their producer's insistence on not being 'fashionable'? Just watch David Gray or Dido in a few years... Anyway, Free Time has what must be Chamby steel guitars; noticeably different to the real one on the following track and you can hear the key-click. Other essentials are the strings in Drained and everything in Strange Season, but it's all pretty bloody good.
An EP release the following year features a remix of Free Time, strangely losing the Chamberlin in the process, with live versions of the otherwise unreleased Rising Steam and the album's By The Book, plus an acoustic Seen The Doctor. The latter two tracks both feature (presumably) Warren's Chamby, with that unmistakable solo male voice on the former and a variety of woodwind and flutes on the latter.
Penn took a five-year holiday after the relative (commercial) failure of Free-for-All, finally bouncing back in '97 with Resigned, a rather rockier proposition all round, this time with a proper band. I actually feel the album's songs are better than those of its predecessor; they certainly have more life to them, which isn't to denigrate Free-for-All in any way. Resigned is an excellent, mature record, full of the sort of songs many artists would kill for, but it still hasn't made him into a superstar, which says more about the general public's taste than I ever could. Anyway, Patrick Warren's still there on various vintage keyboards, with (presumably) Chamberlin highlights including the string part on Out Of My Hands, the flutes on All That That Implies and the pitchbent cellos on Cover Up.
His most recent album to date, 2000's wittily-titled MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident) is business as usual, with Penn's by-now standard mix of upbeat intelligent pop, melancholy ballads and the odd rockier effort. Patrick Warren's back again, with very obvious Chamberlin on most tracks, although I don't know if a Mellotron was also used this time round. No specific highlights, but the first half of the album (minus the first track) are probably the best.
Five years on and Penn releases his first concept album, the slightly unwieldily-titled Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, based on just-post-war Californian life and the issues of the day. Most of his songs for the project are more harmonically straightforward than on his earlier albums, possibly as a nod to the times, although I always had the feeling 'old time' songwriting could be more complex than that of the rock'n'roll era... He apparently plays both Mellotron and Chamberlin on the record, with heavily-orchestral strings on Pretending and flutes on Mary Lynn, although they could be hidden away on anything up to several other tracks, too. Anyway, the material's good, but not outstanding, making this Penn's weakest album since his debut, not to mention the one with the least tape-replay, none of which stop it being a worthy listen.
2007's Palms & Runes, Tarot & Tea: A Michael Penn Collection features a decent run-through from his small catalogue, not to mention eight otherwise unreleased songs or versions. The only ones to (possibly) feature the Chamberlin are the alternate take of Try (strings) and Opening, from the soundtrack of Melvin Goes to Dinner, which has something that sounds a little like the MkII Mellotron 'moving strings', but isn't. Is this a 'new' Penn Chamby track? If I find that it is, I'll review the compilation properly.
So; five bloody good albums, especially Resigned and all, as you may have noticed, at a sensible LP length, even though I doubt if they're available on vinyl. None of your '78 minutes, half of it entirely unnecessary' here, thank you very much... Anyway, good songs, great tape replay. Buy.
While clearing out ancient e-mails recently, I found this little interview snippet with Michael from 2002 (an exceedingly belated thanks, Spencer), from Penn's probably now defunct e-mail list.
Q: When did you first learn of the Chamberlin? How did you discover it? Are there any Chamberlin recordings you would recommend? Is there any chance of you and Patrick [Warren] recording an instrumental album?
A: I first heard about it when I was in high school. I was never a fan of synthesizers imitating acoustic instruments and at that time samplers were low on memory and expensive. A friend of mine had heard about an eccentric inventor out in Upland (50 miles east of L.A.) who had invented these great keyboards in the 40s. Later when I was looking for sounds that would work with some of the music I was writing I remembered Harry Chamberlin and I made a trek out to Upland and tracked him down. He was still making them out of a small warehouse near his home and I got to know Harry and bought one of his M1s. There are many records that make great use of the Chamberlin. Marvin Gaye's Mercy, Mercy Me, Bowie/Eno Low, Leon Russell Carney.
There you go - short but sweet!
See: Aimee Mann | Skooshny | Rare on Air | Boogie Nights | Godzilla | Mellodrama | Mellodrama OST