Thursday, February 14, 2013

Michael Penn: Free-for-All

Album releases slipped over the years.


Back in the days of The Beatles, groups were putting out albums constantly.  In fact, the Beatles were putting out just about two records per year.  Granted, they were shorter, 30 minutes or so, versus the 45 or 50 or 60 or 75-minute albums that people release today.


Eventually, that slipped to one release a year.  And then… I’m not sure what happened, really.  Today record labels and/or artists try to drag every last little hit out of each release.  I suppose I get it.  Hootie and the Blowfish got two full years out of the 43 minutes of Cracked Rear View, and sold sixteen million copies.


Work smarter, not harder, one could say.


Of course, the thing about Hootie is that they just kept having hit after hit get on the charts, and then stick around.  Michael Penn really only had one.  Here was a dude who really needed to get something else out, to build his legacy and his back catalogue.


Except it took him three years to get his next release out.


While March got all the way to 31 on the charts, Free-for-All managed to struggle only up to 160.  That’s still a solid achievement, when you think about it.  How many records come out every year and never get onto the chart at all?


But it was to be Penn’s last real hurrah, record-wise.  He’s put out three more albums and a semi-best-of since then, and none of them have even given the charts a passing tap.


In the days before the Internet, when you could look up any group, fan it on Facebook, and get constant reports of what was coming out and when, my primary source for “What’s Coming Up” was the wall of my local music store.  They used to post each week and what we could look forward to on that wall, and since I visited once a month, I usually had a pretty good idea of when things were going to arrive.


Three years is a long time to wait for new music from a guy who you like so much, so I’m sure I was salivating as I waited for Free-for-All to hit stores.


Interestingly, I don’t remember buying the CD.  I do, however, remember my reaction to hearing it for the first time.


March started with the mid-tempo drum-crash of No Myth a song I already knew and loved, and from there moved onto a series of other songs that I loved.


Free-for-All started a little different.


The opening song was (and is, I suppose) Long Way Down (Look What the Cat Drug In), a slow, sad-sack acoustic ballad that slowly slips in strings and a few other instruments, but which mostly slides around in its own melancholy over a lost love. 


It’s arguably the best song on the album, but it’s vicious in its coldness, with lines like, “I’ve got a feeling she’s been sleeping with the whole wide world.”  It is a song sung by a man who is bitter and angry.


This was not really my headspace, at the time.  I was a junior in high school, had a steady girlfriend, and while life was imperfect (high school is not a time you love, it is a time you tolerate… and if you do love high school, I’ve learned that your life is often a downhill tumble afterwards) it was not altogether bad.


Even listening to the album today, I am struck that while I am older and wiser now, I have never been as angry or full of bile as the characters that populate these songs.  Are they the voice of Michael himself?  A series of pleasant (or unpleasant) rhymes and catchy melodies to which he is just the voice?


I’m not sure, really. 


My memory of it at the time is that I loved it, and hearing it again now, I still do.  Mostly, I’m impressed with how, after the lovely melodies of March, this record improves on those lines, throwing in surprising twists of notes you never quite see coming. 


This musical sharpness is equally applied to the arrangements and chord progressions presented on the record.  The arrangements don’t have thousands of instruments on them, but they marvelously fiddly.  If you have a keen ear, you can puzzle out the way a guitar drops out and lets a bass take a note or three, or how in the song Seen the Doctor, a half-verse vanishes into the sonic spectrum as through it’s being performed by an old West band as recorded through a paper tube.


The thing of it is, having heard different arrangements of several of these songs, I can’t fault Penn for polishing them so completely.  To bring The Beatles back up, my dad once listened to the “lost” work of the Beatles and declared that they’d squeezed a lot of great material out of some really terrible demo versions.


And the thing is, Michael did much the same.  A lot of these songs are good – even very good – but the time he took to say, “And I need a mandolin here.  For maybe four bars,” makes the record, pardon the pun, sing.


As for the lyrics, well, as I said, this is the Lennon album, if the last one was the McCartney one.  The lyrics on this one range from angry to obtuse, and even on the uptempo bright happy-sounding songs make almost zero sense.  “Used to be a man could make his way/With a barrel full of this black coal, half certain you’d say/But in my reach it hangs on.”


Later, there’s a line, “Run your fingers down my back, you make such a cool distraction.”  Is he talking about a relationship?  About a one night stand that distracts from the hard work of everyday labor?  If there’s a context to the song, I’m not aware of what it is.


It’s totally singable though.


And I guess that’s the thing, really.  I Am the Walrus doesn’t really mean anything, and much of Free-for-All, if not totally obtuse, is at least open to many, many interpretations.


The album as a whole, though, is like a perfectly cut diamond that’s too large to do anything but look at.  No one wants to wear it, and while it’s pretty, there are only a small number of people who just want to sit and stare at a diamond for an extended period of time.  “It’s perfect,” they might say, “but what do you DO with it?”


That pretty much nails it.



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