Picks and Pans Review: Free-for-All

updated 09/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Michael Penn

It's refreshing to call an album Beatles-esque and for once be referring to George Harrison. On his second album, singer-songwriter Penn—Sean's 32-year-old big brother—displays a mournful, flattened yet resonant voice reminiscent of the quiet Beatle. As a writer, Penn, like Harrison, favors a spritely but sad pop style, enlivened with eclectic, often adventurous flourishes, from classical strings to acid rock.

Many of the songs have a romantic, folk-tinged quality that will remind fans of Penn's 1989 debut, March, and its breakthrough hit, "No Myth." There is, for instance, the acoustic guitar-and-cello susurrus of "Long Way Down (Look What the Cat Drug In)," the shuffle-and-wink of "Now We're Even." Penn rocks out a little more this time but, except for the heady tumble of "Seen the Doctor," with uneven results. Gut-wrenchers are not exactly Penn's prime cut. "Strange Season" is essentially a sedate tune with a clamorous guitar riff thrown on top like a bad toupee.

It's the unpredictable detours that make Penn's writing so indelible. Consider the dizzying chorus of "Free Time," with guitars glinting around a chugging rhythm, or the muted psychedelia of "Drained." If Michael continues to make music like this, and Sean's career continues to drift, the most famous Penn may turn out to be the one who doesn't make photographers flinch. (RCA)

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