By New Times
By Derek Askey
By Mark Deming
By Serene Dominic
By Jason Keil
By Robrt L. Pela and Amy Silverman
By Jeff Moses
By Serene Dominic
FRANK STALLONE never had a problem with it. "Rocky's kid brother?" Hey, absolutely. Shaun Cassidy stepped happily into his TV star brother's spotlight. Kid Partridge? Sure. Hold a seat on that Day-Glo bus.
While the latest actor-turned-singer wails the blues (probably off-key) about the problems of being taken seriously in the rock world, the more musically inclined siblings of popular actors have generally endured their inherited credibility hurdles with few complaints.
Oh, sure, there are disadvantages to making a name for yourself on the rock scene when a relative has already sprawled that name across movie marquees. You arrive carrying the baggage of their well-defined image and personality before you can even sing a note. Nobody believes you paid your dues because of your solid show-biz connections. And it's entirely possible you'll never see your name mentioned in the papers without your celluloid sibling's name in parenthesis immediately following it.
Still, in a business where everyone says it's whom you know, it helps when everyone knows your bro. The name's already familiar, after all. And, if truth be told, paying your dues for twelve years in half a million smoky dives ain't all it's cracked up to be.
Enter Michael Penn. The older brother of actors Sean and Christopher Penn, this is one aspiring singing star you won't find swapping anecdotes about his brother's and Madonna's wedding day to guarantee a little ink for himself. Indeed, for a guitar-toting actor's brother, Penn seems to have achieved the unthinkable: He's managed to make a name for himself while keeping the family ties from binding.
Reviews of his debut album, March, have been unanimously favorable, with the brother references dispensed of in an almost obligatory, disinterested fashion. "Yeah, Penn is the brother of you-know-who, but who cares?" began Rolling Stone's three-and-a-half-star review of the album. "It's a moot point."
Even David Letterman held back on the family-tree factoids when introducing the new RCA Records artist on a recent Late Night, requiring the folks at home to debate amongst themselves whether those piercing eyes and that bulbous nose could belong to anybody but Sean's brother.
All of this attention on Penn's music alone reflects well on March--and on the legitimacy of Penn's talent. Here, the press seems to be certifying, is an upstart singer whose music is more interesting than his geneology. Never mind what music-biz contacts he may have made during the year Madonna happened to be his sister-in-law. This is one talent that would have eventually surfaced if he'd been raised by penguins in the Arctic Circle.
Then again, that music-only focus Penn's been enjoying in the press may be the very product of his family reputation. After all, some reporters' best friends are photographers, many of whom have accumulated full eight-by-ten scrapbooks of Sean Penn's right fist and spitwads. And this is Sean's big brother, for crying out loud! Imagine what he could do to a measly rock journalist!
"I'm pleased that most of the attention has been focused on my music and not on my family ties," says Michael Penn in serious, gauged tones in a recent phone interview. "And it's not being focused on that stuff," his words now becoming increasingly more measured and emphatic, "because I don't allow that stuff to come up in interviews like this."
Well, the interviewer cautiously proceeds, there must be an interesting story behind how three brothers born to a California actor-director (Leo Penn) and actress (Eileen Ryan) all wound up following their folks into the entertainment industry.
"Well, I ended up in music," Penn stresses. "I don't know if that's the entertainment business. I mean, it's music. That's a completely different thing from acting."
Hmmm. Did Mike ever take that issue up with his former sis-in-law?
Forget that one, bub. Penn won't even touch a question about Miss M.
"Let's move on to the next subject," he says politely. But firmly.
PENN WARMS UP considerably when talk turns to his album and its distinctive mix of old and new sounds: acoustic folk guitar played over high-tech drum synthesizers and quirky four-track demo ambiance captured in state-of-the-art digital clarity.
"I did a lot of demos first on a four-track machine to get the arrangements down," Penn explains. "And when it came time to record in the studio, there were just certain qualities about those four-track recordings that I really liked and didn't want to lose. I don't really know where that sound quality comes from. It's a tricky thing because it's almost a contradiction in itself. There's one aspect of it that really gives every instrument its individual place, where there's air around each part and you really feel like you're sitting in the room with the band. And then there's the other aspect of it where the recording method kind of squeezes all the sounds together and there's some kind of inherent tape compression that happens. So in between the two of those principles is a pretty cool sound."
He's less esoteric when explaining the inspiration behind March's intriguing layering of acoustic guitars and electronic drums. "That came about for two reasons," Penn says. "One of 'em was choice. I happen to like the drum machine. It's not a replacement for live drums; it's a different instrument altogether. And another reason was budget. I mean, we knew that some of the songs were meant to be done with a real drummer, but we didn't have a huge budget. So it was really just a matter of determining which songs the drum machine worked on. And if it worked, we had to use it to save the money. Simple as that."