Michael Penn hit it big in 1989. Besides being the brother of Sean Penn -- who at that time was making quite a few splashes of his own -- the video for his first single "No Myth" was considered brilliantly unorthodox. It didn't hurt that Penn's look and sound had an odd 1930s aspect, something that he continues to maintain today.
But success was short-lived. None of the other songs on his debut album ("March") were as easily accessible, particularly the lyrics, which tended be surreal and very much Nathaniel West. Penn's charming Beatles-esque sound and the off-kilter keyboards of bandmate Patrick Warren were quickly perceived as gimmicky. He became a one-hit wonder. The end.
Michael Penn continued to quietly release albums, and though none of them have made a significant dent in the public consciousness, devotees still cherish each and every one of them. He still writes beautiful, punchy songs with emphasis on acoustic guitar and odd keyboards. He has a distinctive, honest, no-nonsense sort of voice. He's just slick enough to avoid sounding "indie," but he still manages to come across as a master of his own destiny...even if his destiny is to remain forever obscure.
If you lost track of him in the '80s, check out 2005's "Walter Reed." A great video for a great song.
As much as I love his music, part of me recognizes that Michael Penn doesn't have a lot of RANGE...his style and approach hasn't changed significantly in the last twenty years. The songs he writes today could have just as easily appeared on his first album. Add to this the fact that his wife Aimee Mann ALSO writes songs which sound exactly like HIS songs -- through no fault of her own, of course...her style was solidified long before she met him -- and you want to shake the two-headed indie-creature that is Aimichael Pennemann and say "MIX IT UP A BIT!"
In any case, he's great live...here he is playing my favourite Michael Penn song, "Long Way Down." The instrument that Patrick Warren is playing is -- I think -- some form of Chamberlain, and a big part of the early Penn sound.
Albums to buy: I prefer "March" and "MP4," since they have a bit more variety to them, but they're all much of a muchness. For that reason there are no "albums to avoid" or "for fans only." Mr. Penn does not have much of an output and it is all of pretty much the same quality.