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This is the Sea

Jason Lewis writes, The Penguin Cafe's improbable backstory leads to The Imperfect Sea

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by Jason Lewis, UK Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: May, 2017
There was always something dreamlike about the world that the Penguin Cafe Orchestra created, how seemingly incongruous styles would blend magnificently together like the strangest of night thoughts
by Jason Lewis, UK Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: May, 2017
There was always something dreamlike about the world that the Penguin Cafe Orchestra created, how seemingly incongruous styles would blend magnificently together like the strangest of night thoughts

Penguin Cafe
The Imperfect Sea
(Erased Tapes)

Whilst on holiday in the South of France in the early 1970’s, the late musician and composer Simon Jeffes' suffered a ghastly bout of food poisoning. During the ensuing fever, he had vivid dreams about 'a very disconnected, dehumanising world’ in the near future, bleak and soulless, entirely man-made. The  only sanctuary could be found in the nearby ramshackle Penguin Cafe where visitors sought solace in the company of others and listened to the  house band. The name of the house  band was the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

Simon Jeffes' went on to create a series beautiful and beguiling albums with the Penguin Cafe Orchestra until his early death in 1997.  There was always something dreamlike about the world that PCO created, how seemingly  incongruous styles would blend magnificently together like the strangest of night thoughts. Frequently, the familiar and the avant garde would collide, on their first album the baroque jig "Giles Farnaby's Dream" combined strings, harpsichord and ukulele to joyous effect, only to followed by the disconcerting Eno-esque ambient drone of Pigtail. Throughout their time together, the PCO created music that felt like the soundtrack to our most confounding dreams.

Eight years ago Jeffes' son Arthur  assembled Penguin Cafe, partly in tribute to his late father’s work. Their first two albums (the competent 'A Matter of Life' and the elegant 'The Red Book'), saw him create a new identity worthy of the celebrated title. And now their third album The Imperfect Sea is their most complete work to date.   As his father's fears of a dehumanising society become more apparent, it is a revelation to find an album of such exquisite beauty, tunes that have space to breathe, to unfurl and engage with.

The opener 'Ricercar' is full of the interweaving strings and strummed guitars that were a hallmark of many of PCO's most celebrated compositions.  It was a delight to see them perform this recently at the Barbican with new (Erased Tapes) label mate Nils Frahm.  The legacy of PCO's music is a theme that runs through Frahm's music as well as that of other label mates Olafur Arnalds and A Winged Victory for the Sullen.  

There’s a change of tone with the hypnotic 'Cantorum' which brings together cyclical pianos and and sensual bowed strings that slowly envelop the listener. There are delightful surprises on this album too, including the audacious decision to take two pieces of electronic music (Kraftwerk's  'Franz Schubert’ and Simeon Mobile Disco's 'Wheels Within Wheels' ) and re-cast them  in the semi-classical worlds of  the Penguin Cafe, just like the house band may have done.

The gentle Protection sounds like part of a score to a movie about dreams that has yet to be made, whilst the plucked strings of the haunting 'Rescue'  has a cinematic feel as it develops, layer upon layer, to its enticing conclusion. The beautiful solo piano reinterpretation of PCO's 'Now Nothing' is a touching homage to Simon Jeffes' original creation and is the most moving tune here.

Over forty years after Simon Jeffes' feverish dream, The Imperfect Sea provides a thoughtful and worthy addition to the canon.  It’s time to take a seat in the ramshackle cafe and lose yourself in the bewitching world of the house band.

Jason Lewis
UK Music Editor

Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.

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