Comeback Penn-ding

Pessimists might interpret the title of Michael Penn's third CD, Resigned, as an expression of frustration or, more appropriately, resignation. Those with a brighter outlook, on the other hand, might be more inclined to see the title differently -- as in "re-signed" or "making a fresh start."

As it turns out, both interpretations apply to the events surrounding Resigned's long-delayed release. Penn's saga dates back to 1990. At that time, his debut long-player, March, was making major waves. The single, "No Myth," was getting strong airplay on a variety of radio formats and the CD had received overwhelmingly positive press. But the momentum quickly faded following the release of Penn's Free-for-All in 1992. Despite being a strong second outing, it received little support from his label, RCA.

"There are a lot of politics involved in record companies," says Penn, admitting that he's stating the obvious. "I just kind of got caught up in them."

Thus, by 1994, Penn's career was caught in the stalemate between him and his handlers. Penn wanted to part ways with RCA, but the label wouldn't let him go. "They didn't give me tour support for Free-for-All," Penn says. "So that kind of left me back at home in September '93, and I started writing the third record. And somewhere around '94, everything kind of blew up, and I got very discouraged."

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And a bit resigned, perhaps?
"Yeah, it was a very, very frustrating period for about three and a half of those years -- where I was not allowed to make a record and not allowed to find another place to make one," he says.

That nasty situation wasn't resolved until a group of executives led by label president Bob Jamieson took over at RCA. Unlike their predecessors, they were willing to cut Penn loose. "[Jamieson] took one look at what was going on and said 'Well, this is unconscionable,' " Penn recalls.

Free of RCA, the singer/songwriter sibling of screen stars Sean and Chris Penn signed a new deal with Sony-owned 57 Records. And only now is he beginning to understand the new lease on life Resigned represents. "I wasn't looking at it [as a fresh start]," he admits, "until I realized that five years meant a lot more than I had thought."

In recording Resigned, Penn made some major departures from his first two CDs, which were largely pieced together by Penn and keyboardist Patrick Warren. This time around, Penn enlisted the help of a full band -- Penn on guitar and vocals, producer/57 label head Brendan O'Brien on bass, Warren on keyboards and Dan McCarroll on drums -- and taped tracks live in the studio.

"I had just been heading that way," Penn says. "When I did the demos for March, that was before I got signed. That was me in a small little bedroom in my apartment with a Macintosh computer and a sampler. A lot of March was that way, and that carried into Free-for-All. But I was already getting sick of it."

But it's not as if Resigned doesn't sound very much like a typical Michael Penn outing. The CD is filled with distinctively crafted ditties that build on a familiar Penn formula: cloaking striking Beatlesque melodies in a pastiche of textures ranging from psychedelic to folky to baroque. The crisp "Like Egypt Was," the hummably addictive breakup tale "Me Around," the hard-edged "Try" and the stately string-accented ballad "I Can Tell" prove that Penn hasn't lost his way as a composer in the extracurricular drama of the last several years, and they undoubtedly place Resigned among the best, most thoughtfully constructed pop CDs of the year.

In addition to resuming a normal recording schedule, Penn has gotten into film scoring, working on a pair of movies from director Paul Thomas Anderson -- Hard Eight, recently in theaters, and the already controversial porn epic Boogie Nights, due out later this year. Getting involved in the movie business would seem like a natural progression for Penn, given his upbringing: Aside from his blood ties to Chris and Sean, he is the son of director/ actor Leo Penn and actress Eileen Ryan. His familiarity with the ways of the film industry, however, made Penn a little reluctant at first to dive right in.

"I know that most of the time what happens with film scoring is that it's really art by committee," Penn says. "You've got a hundred hands in the broth, and you've got producers and distributors and all these other people coming in with their two cents, and I have no interest in doing that. The situation with Paul proved itself to be very different."

So at long last, Penn has been granted the official opportunity to do what he's been struggling to do for the last five years: rebuild a career that, for a brief moment, was actually on the fast track.

"I'm kind of paying dues again," Penn says. "But that's okay."

Michael Penn performs with Sheryl Crow and Wilco at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 13, at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Tickets are $15 to $35. For info, call 629-3700.

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