I like to think I have a knack for discovering strange, obscure and brilliant music that most people have never heard of. This time though I think I may have outdone myself.
The Penguin Cafe Orchestra is definately a bit out there. Frustrating hard to describe it combines classical, jazz, and folk sounds with some of the concepts of prog rock and sonic experimentation. The result being a group of incredibly listenable pastoral, sunny, experimental, string compositions.
Heres how Simon Jeffes, the founding member of the orchestra described how it came about.
“In 1972 I was in the south of France. I had eaten some bad fish and was in consequence rather ill. As I lay in bed I had a strange recurring vision, there, before me, was a concrete building like a hotel or council block. I could see into the rooms, each of which was continually scanned by an electronic eye. In the rooms were people, everyone of them preoccupied. In one room a person was looking into a mirror and in another a couple were making love but lovelessly, in a third a composer was listening to music through earphones. Around him there were banks of electronic equipment. But all was silence. Like everyone in his place he had been neutralized, made gray and anonymous. The scene was for me one of ordered desolation. It was as if I were looking into a place which had no heart. Next day when I felt better, I went to the beach. As I sat there a poem came to me. It began ‘I am the proprietor of the Penguin Cafe. I will tell you things at random.’
As you can see. Completely Mental. Slightly Pretentious. But filled with an artistic sensibility and brilliantly fun desire to explore musical possibilities that should be in all music.
The penguin cafe released their first album in 1976, “Music from the Penguin Cafe,” and continued writing and recording up until 1997 when Jeffes died of a brain tumour. Their first album is in my opinion the weakest of their albums, it seems a little stifled and far less fun. It was definatly one of musicians trying to find thier feet. The next three albums though, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Broadcasting From Home and Signs of Life are all fantastic though. Each revisiting themes and ideas from past albums and building on them with different instrumentation and unexpected flourishes.
If however you’re doubting their rock credentials at all, and am wondering about why I’m blathering on about a classicly training string orchestra my response would be…
Well Brian Eno acted as executive producer on some of their albums and their album artwork is by Emily Young, of Pink Floyds “See Emily Play,” fame. You might also recognize alot of their songs from their use in adverts and TV shows, “Telephone and Rubber Band,” used to be the One2One ad music, and I guarantee you will have heard Perpetuum Mobile as its been used on everything.
In short, Penguin Cafe Orchestra is one of the most unique things I’ve heard in a long time, and I can’t stop listening to them. I can only suggest that if you like Phillip Glass, Pentangle or Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, you might like them but even those are a long way from being like the Penguin Cafe