Michael Penn 

Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 (SpinArt)

If most music critics are frustrated musicians, then most musicians are frustrated novelists. Some of this year's best records from Okkervil River, the Hold Steady and Aimee Mann double as sonic novellas, complete with character sketches and manuscript-like liner notes. Mann's better half, Michael Penn, throws his quill in the ink and offers up Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, which chronicles one screenwriter's blues set in a specific place and time (take a guess on when and where). Given the themes of hollow glamour and tattered celluloid, it sounds like Penn is singing from the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Mulholland Drive, though with fewer delusional blond starlets and more AAA-style rock. While a few of these tunes are excellent ("Walter Reed" and the raga-tinged "Mary Lynn" in particular), Penn has arranged these dozen songs around a somewhat flimsy, opaque storyline. Perhaps there will be a Cliffs Notes for this record (like R. Kelly's latest serial), but until then, the songs sound fine out of context.

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