O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : Quiet Penn Brother Is Worth the Listen

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's no myth that buried beneath the shy everyday surface of some pop personages lies an extrovert who needs only a crowd, a backbeat and a few guitar licks to shed all hesitancy and leap into a new, spotlight-commanding frame of being.

Michael Penn, however, isn't one of them.

No Springsteenian or Jacksonian transformations for this reserved pop rookie. With his dark brows, pale looks and placid stage manner, Penn--who bears a closer resemblance to Michael Dukakis than to his brazen elder brother, Sean--could have been the most bookish, painfully quiet kid in school as he stood (not swayed or leaped or hopped or shuffled, but stood ) on stage Monday night at the Coach House.

But blessed are the meek, for they too will inherit the kingdom of rock--if they can write songs as winning as Penn's.

While it would have helped greatly had he shown some fire and moxie at appropriate points--one tiny, emotion-embellishing gesture would have been a start--the reserve of Penn's performance did not detract from the obvious appeal of his songs. As ill at ease as he seemed on stage, it never proved a hindrance to communication.

Penn is a Beatles-inspired melodist whose tunes are so seductive that the unstimulated eye is willing to wait patiently rather than begrudge the ear its enjoyment. He also is a strong lyricist capable of engaging the mind. As if in compensation for the show's lack of outward verve, Penn's strongest songs were full of inward-directed emotional turmoil.

The singer's most vivid theme concerned the choice between a calm, comfortable existence and a life that is emotionally engaged--and therefore full of pain and uncertainty. For all of his surface stillness, Penn made it clear that he chooses the stormy side.

"If I wear apathy's crown, don't call me highness, 'cause it's a long way down," Penn sang during "Long Way Down," a strong new song that was one of three unrecorded numbers he included in a 70-minute set that included all 11 songs from his successful debut album, "March." Later, Penn gave a tender dedication to "Battle Room," describing the song about relationship strife as "sort of a lullaby." In a weary but dogged voice, Penn conveyed how the pain that comes when couples do battle is preferable to the arid peace that comes through not caring enough to fight.

Not bad for a rookie--although an encore of Richard Thompson's "Tear-Stained Letter" was a reminder of how far Penn still has to go as a performer. Besides being one of rock's very best songwriters, Thompson is also a witty, dramatic performer who exudes personality. None of those qualities came through in Penn's performance (he failed, for example, to capture the humor in "Tear-Stained Letter"). But Penn's smart way with a song should keep him around long enough to work on his delivery.

Penn's band, a strong four-man lineup driven by former X drummer D.J. Bonebrake and Gurf Marlix--the dexterous guitarist who must have been named on the planet Krypton--might have caught fire with more extroverted leadership. As it was, the band emphasized precision over clout, although it did stretch out and heat up on occasion.

For the most part, Penn's songs were played in true-to-the-album arrangements, right down to prerecorded backing vocal textures and Beatlesque backwards-guitar studio effects served up at the touch of a sampling keyboard--a device used often during Penn's rendition of his breakthrough hit, "No Myth," an exceptionally catchy song that came off sounding more rote than mythic. Next time (this show was the last of his tour to promote "March"), Penn should ditch the studio replications and offer a fresh dimension, a rawness and immediacy that are the very reason for playing live in the first place.

Victoria Williams' engaging 30-minute opening set reconfirmed her standing as one of contemporary pop's true originals. The Los Angeles singer, backed by guitar, bass and minimalist percussion, has a high, airy vibrato that defies convention. Her tremulous but pure warble sounds like a cross between Maria Muldaur's eccentric pop style and Maybelle Carter's old-time Appalachian strains, with a few cracked, brittle shards from Billie Holiday's last days cropping up as well.

It's a highly stylized, throwback brand of singing, seemingly more apt to Stephen Foster hymns than to contemporary pop. But the Louisiana-born Williams makes it seem utterly natural, in a way reminiscent of those rustic Scottish hippies, the Incredible String Band, back in their late-'60s heyday. As eccentrically backwoodsy as she sometimes sounds, Williams showed that she also can lock nicely into a song with a steady rock beat, such as "Summer of Drugs," a sorrowful anthem about lost children and abdicating parents.

Enhancing Williams' charm is her knack for writing songs that are literally fabulous: They are, in fact, fables set to music, populated with her own Bre'r Rabbit/Wind in the Willows menagerie of swamp and cabin folk who come in forms both human and furry (and, in her portrait of the benevolent "Boogieman," perhaps something in between human and furry). Those fables usually have humane points to make about deep questions of ethics and faith.

If adult audiences don't want to bother with this strangely winsome philosopher, she would make a marvelous children's performer. But that would be the grown-ups' loss.

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