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.


  1. Wonderful - very cool - hugely inspiring

  2. Oh, my God. I had a recording of "Cutting Branches For A Temporary Shelter" on a cassette tape twenty five years ago. I accidentally left the tape in a train, while we were on our way to the airport, to spend the summer of 1986 teaching in China.

    My wife and I have spoken wistfully about that song ever since, with neither of us remembering the title, searching vainly on YouTube in recent years by trying to describe its soft, ethereal quality in words.

    A friend just posted a different Penguin Café song on Facebook. It made me read upon the band, which I'd known about, but had never associated with the long-sought little song.

    Various links brought me to this blog post about ten minutes ago. In reading your reference the "Cutting Branches", I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. That was the title!!

    We just bought the song on iTunes, and have been listening to it over and often again. It is like seeing a beloved friend again.