Michael Penn has never quite matched the success of his debut album, 1989's March, which was powered by the terrifically catchy single "No Myth," but his four subsequent discs have been reliable sources of intelligent and likeable songcraft. Not immune to the major-label troubles that famously plagued his wife, Aimee Mann, Penn left Epic Records after 2000's MP4: Days Since A Lost Time Accident, and co-founded his own independent label, United Musicians, with Mann. Shifting to a DIY ethic, he took his time recording a follow-up, and spent half a decade writing and self-producing Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 in his home studio, while also producing music by Mann, Liz Phair, and The Wallflowers, and recording film soundtracks for Melvin Goes To Dinner and The Anniversary Party. (Penn's movie ties run deep; he's not only the brother of actors Sean and Chris Penn, but his late father was a TV director and his mother is an actress.)
On Mr. Hollywood, Penn focuses his tuneful, strummy pop sensibility on a concept album about the evolving state of America just after World War II. There's nothing as immediately or enduringly memorable as "No Myth," but it's a solid piece of work throughout, jumping easily between songs about heartbreak and ruminations on some of the most far-reaching cultural developments of 1947, like the invention of the transistor and the first nationwide TV broadcast. Though Penn's chosen some unlikely topics for pop songs, his noir-era organizing principle never seems heavy-handed—the short, Sputnik-y instrumental "18 September," which commemorates the establishment date of the Department of Defense, is subtle but ominous. Lyrically, Penn is as broodingly heart-on-sleeve as ever ("every good thing I had abandoned me," he mourns on the album's best song, "Walter Reed") and it fits his music perfectly to evoke the Hollywood of Raymond Chandler novels—brooding, potentially dangerous, but not unromantic.