Friday, October 30, 2009

Penguin Cafe Orchestra (1981)

Aside from having one of the best album covers in the history of recorded music, this self-titled second album from the Penguin Cafe Orchestra is also one of the most unique, humorous and downright pleasant records I've ever encountered.

The Band is the creation of Simon Jeffes (alas, no longer with us) who wrote all the music and meticulously rehearsed his diverse group of extremely talented musicians. He also played about a dozen of the instruments himself. The sound he created is difficult to define. Most record stores list the PCO under New Age, which in my opinion is absurd. The truth is that the songs are a mishmash of Jeffes' eclectic influences including, but not limited to, jazz, world music, classical, ambient, lounge and maybe even a little pop. It's all instrumental and all acoustic, although I suspect there has been a certain amount of studio manipulation on one or two tracks, and all delightful.

I mentioned before that the music is humorous, and indeed it is, but not in a Frank Zappa, or even Spike Jones, kind of way. It makes you laugh in the same way a small child laughs when he sees something wonderful and utterly unexpected. It is the humor of joy unbridled. This is revealed in track titles like "Telephone and Rubber Band" and "The Ecstacy of Dancing Fleas." Elsewhere, the album ventures into slightly more sober territory, while still not taking itself too seriously. "Cutting Branches For A Temporary Shelter" remains one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard. At times it's almost heartbreaking.

Let me tell you folks, to produce an album so relentlessly innocent and optimistic without it turning into insipid treacle is no small feat. Simon Jeffes has achieved it, and yet remains unjustly obscure.

Einstürzende Neubauten - Silence Is Sexy (2000)

It's clear that these German industrial pioneers have matured a lot since their humble beginnings nearly thirty years ago. In the early days, they collected various scraps of metal and concrete and banged them together for their (and our) amusement. They haven't lost any of their scrap metal, but now they use it to make actual songs, and catchy ones at that.

Not to imply that this is in any way poppy; it's still arty and difficult and sometimes downright disturbing, but now there is a sense of genuine craftsmanship in every track. Frontman Blixa Bargeld has obviously been honing his lyrical skills as well, since the words on the album display far more subtlety and depth than on earlier releases such as Halber Mensch, or even the groundbreaking Haus Der Lüge. Some of the songs are in German, and some are in English, but all are enjoyable.

The mood of Silence is Sexy is notably restrained and a bit morose. Blixa's voice resembles a whisper far more often than a scream. The result of this is a lingering tension that gradually builds and is sustained for most of the album. You keep expecting things to explode, but they almost never do. The notable and awesome exception to this is the standout track "Redukt." It begins with a simple 4/4 rhythm coming from what sounds like an anvil. This is accompanied by long and wordy verses in German, all subdued and held back by the unceasing metal banging. The track is ten minutes long and this pattern continues for a really long time, but just when you think are no more surprises, the roaring, single-word chorus comes blasting out like the wrath of God. If you're not prepared for it, the sudden change in volume can be hard on the ears, but the effect is marvelous.

The other song I want to mention is the sole track on the second disc. "Pelikanol" is a twenty minute industrial nightmare that relies on repetition, a lopsided washing machinee rhythm, creepy words and long drones provided by Bargeld's voice. It almost sounds like Krautrock with its steady (albeit warped) groove and trance inducing drones, and it's probably my favorite track on the disc. It just goes to show you not to write off a great band, simply because they've been around for a few decades.