CD Review of Junkyard Junky by Dan Penn
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Dan Penn: Junkyard Junky

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


e’s always been more interested in writing than recording – and he hasn’t had a major-label deal since he released Do Right Man through Sire in 1994 – but soul legend Dan Penn hasn’t stepped away from the microphone entirely; in fact, he’s just as busy behind the scenes as he’s ever been, and as proof, his homebrewed Dandy Records imprint has just released Junkyard Junky, the second volume in Penn’s sporadic Demo Series.

He isn’t exactly a household name at this point, but if you care about soul music at all, you’ve heard Penn’s music – his early songwriting career yielded a treasure trove of classics that includes “Dark End of the Street,” “I’m Your Puppet,” “It Tears Me Up,” “Do Right Woman,” and the Box Tops’ two biggest hits, “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, really; outside of music geek circles, Penn has never really gotten the recognition he’s deserved, but unless he’s been spectacularly foolish with his money, it seems a pretty safe bet that what he’s lacked in fame, he’s more than made up for in royalties.

His storied past is mostly beside the point here, however. Aside from a new recording of “Is a Bluebird Blue,” the song Conway Twitty turned into Penn’s first hit, Junkyard Junky focuses on his current work – which is just fine, as it turns out, because his gift for combining down-home greasy-spoon soul with Nashville-style lyrical wit hasn’t left him. Although these are home demos, Penn’s approach to the demo process is pleasantly atypical – these songs feature a live rhythm section, horns, Wurlitzer, and whatever other production he felt like applying, rather than the typical synths-and-drum-machines setup you tend to hear on personal vault projects.

Of course, it is still a collection of demos, and as a result, it lacks the sort of cohesion you might expect from a planned album. None of the 14 tracks are bad – far from it – but they feel slapped together. It makes sense, given the material’s origins, and it’s preferable to no new Penn recordings, to say the least, but it doesn’t hang together as well as Do Right Man, 1972’s Nobody’s Fool, or 1999’s live set with Spooner Oldham, Moments from This Theatre. In other words, it’s for completists – but if you’re collecting Dan Penn solo albums, then that’s exactly what you are, so don’t let that scare you off. Most people aren’t making soul records like this anymore, after all; we’ve got to reward them when they do.

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