This Week’s Finds: April 24-30 (Michael Penn, Amy Ray, Love as Laughter)

“Walter Reed” – Michael Penn

Michael Penn can’t catch a break. The guy spent the first half of his musical career battling the perception that he was “only” Sean Penn’s older brother (when anyone was paying any attention at all), and now seems destined to spend the second half identified “merely” as Aimee Mann’s husband. On top of this, he had his pop cultural moment early—bursting on the musical scene with the brilliant semi-hit “No Myth” from his first CD, March, he has sold relatively few albums since. During the ’90s he found himself in one of those weird only-in-the-record-industry stories in which he was neither allowed to make a record nor to break his contract for four years. It also didn’t help that he released what strikes me as his only weak-ish CD–2000’s cleverly titled MP4 (’twas his fourth album, see)–right when his wife was hitting her stride in terms of widespread recognition and critical regard. Like I said, he can’t catch a break, which is a terrible shame as he is the real thing, a seriously talented singer/songwriter with an indelible voice, an enviable sense of craft, and a proven knack for neo-Beatle-isms. Do yourself a favor and find his second album, 1992’s Free-for-All, which is something of a lost classic. So, okay, “Walter Reed”: a song from his next CD, Mr. Hollywood, Jr., 1947. Typically midtempo and crisp, the song alternates a subdued lyric with a classically Penn-ish melodic chorus hook. The CD is apparently going to be some sort of concept album, ruminating on American society in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The CD is slated for a summer release on Penn’s Mimeograph Records, available through spinART Records. Thanks to Thomas Bartlett at Salon for the head’s up on this one. MP3 via Better Propaganda.

“Driver Education” – Amy Ray

Peppy, good-hearted NRBQ-style rock’n’roll from Indigo Girl Ray. With a tight little Hammond B3-enhanced groove, “Driver Education” finds the big-voiced Ray in a relaxed, even playful context, reminiscing about high school’s emotional battlefields in a song alternating word-tumbling verses and an almost haiku-like chorus. While as a group the Indigo Girls have always maintained their integrity, success over the years seemed to morph their earnestness into an unnecessary sort of solemnity that undermined the heart and spirit of the music. In her solo work, Ray seems able to cut loose more, both musically and energetically, and the results are gladdening. “Driver Education” is not the only song to deal with emerging gender relationships from a teenaged perspective on her new CD, which is called Prom and was released earlier this month on Ray’s own, not-for-profit Daemon Records label. The MP3 is available via the Daemon web site.

“Dirty Lives” – Love as Laughter

Sounding somewhat like the Replacements if they were just goofy rather than drunk and goofy, the West Coast band Love as Laughter has an immediately endearing sort of tight-yet-sloppy (or is that sloppy-yet-tight?) vibe to them; think the Shins crossed with early-’70s Rolling Stones and you’re somewhere near the sound this outfit crunches out. I’ll leave it to the relentlessly trend-focused indie rock writers on the web to figure out where these guys fit on the rock/indie-rock/retro-rock spectrum while I sit back and enjoy the heck out of the way they breathe vivid life into a sound too often ossified as “classic rock.” So even as this one surely churns itself out “Bang a Gong”-ishly, there’s way more to it. Listen to the opening guitar line, for instance: maybe it takes you back to the ’70s, but the subtle, rubbery uncertainty of the notes themselves add new character to the sound, as does singer/songwriter/guitarist Sam Jayne’s good-natured voice and capacity for writing rollicking melodies. The song comes from the band’s new Laughter’s Fifth CD, released this week on Sub Pop Records. The MP3 is available via Better Propaganda. Hat’s off to Largehearted Boy for the tip.

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