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Name and Fortune

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."

Penn is also expansive when asked to detail his partnership with keyboardist Patrick Warren, whom the singer began playing with in Doll Congress (an early-Eighties L.A. club band), and retained as his arranger and chief accompanist on March.

"Patrick and I go back about nine years," he says, "and we just have a very good working relationship. He's a great person for me to bounce ideas off of. Generally, what will happen is I'll write a song, start working on a demo of it, and I'll get to a certain point where I have the basic structure but it's time to start finding the basic colors and stuff. And Patrick and I will get together and start exploring textures. We both have similar ears, and we respond to similar sorts of sounds. And we spend a lot of time trying to find sounds that have a certain depth to them . . . a certain realness . . . sounds that have air in them."

Surprisingly, Penn bristles over comparisons between his rhythmic folk sound and the Rubber Soul-era Beatles. It's a likeness many critics have noticed, pointing out Penn's strong vocal resemblance to John Lennon and his knack for writing melodically rich pop tunes.

"A lot of people are saying, `Oh, there's a lot of Beatle-isms on this record,'" Penn says with a touch of irritation. "But that influence is just one among many. I mean, the Beatles influenced so many people that a lot of the people I may have listened to more were influenced by them. You know what I mean? So it's coming through from all sorts of places."

As great a compliment as the Fab Four comparisons may be, Penn detests being lumped into the Contemporary Beatlesque category such artists as Lenny Kravitz and Tears for Fears already occupy.

"Rock 'n' roll's been subcategorized and compartmentalized to the nth degree," he fairly seethes. "And I'm getting stuck in this new category that they've just come up with over the last few years that . . . I mean, they have just yet another title for another style of rock music. When the whole point of rock is that there are no rules and you can make a song whatever it wants to be."

Clearly, Michael Penn is one rising rock star who won't sit still for any comparisons. Not to the most influential band of the pop era. And especially not to any young actor who happens to share the same name, bone structure and--not coincidentally--the same volatile temperament.

A chip off the old block? Go ahead and suggest that to Michael Penn. But you'd better duck.

"Most of the attention has been on my music and not on my family ties, because I don't allow that to come up in interviews like this."

Penn detests being lumped into the Contemporary Beatlesque category such artists as Lenny Kravitz and Tears for Fears already occupy.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern