Recent Listening: Penguin Cafe, The Imperfect Sea.


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Not to be confused with The Penguin Cafe Orchestra that disbanded upon the untimely death of its leader Simon Jeffes in 2007, the Penguin Cafe is actually a different band, although it includes some of the previous members and is led by Simon Jeffes’ son, Arthur.

Live, The Penguin Cafe play many of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s favourite pieces and it has been my privilege to enjoy them live twice (Usher Hall, Edinburgh and Glastonbury) but they record in their own right and The Imperfect Sea is their third, and best, album.

I read that Arthur was concerned that this latest recording was taking them to new places and ran the risk of disaffecting long term PCO fans.  I can reassure you Arthur that you have done no such thing.

It’s a bobbydazzler.  It really is.

It’s far from imperfect.

The sound, as my good friend and long term PCO aficionado, Jon Stevenson, said to me the other day lacks some of the humour of the PCO and he is right. The Penguin Cafe are a more serious bunch of musicians and their output is perhaps more orchestral than the PCO which was more folky in totality, but this matters not a jot when the quality is so high.

I’ve listened to The Imperfect Sea 5 or 6 times in the last few days and there is nary an off note.  Sure, the first time I listened I was riding my bike and the constant ‘ping’ of cycle bell on Cantorum was a mite discombobulating, but it’s endearing also and hearkens back towards the PCO’s playfulness.  (It has a small debt to pay to the mighty Telephone and Rubber Band).

Ricecar, the opener, is a classic of sequenced music and is certainly of the PCO school.

Overall this is a mighty addition to the PC/PCO canon.

The seven day music challenge.


My pal, Peter Flockhart, challenged me to find seven songs that would sum up my musical taste, but I got a little carried away.  Thought you might like to see them all in the one place as we reach day 30.  They are in no particular order and, surprisingly, only one artist appears twice.  Tom Waits.

Day 30

Day 29

Day 28

Day 27

Day 26

Day 25

Day 24

Day 23

Day 22

Day 21

Day 20

Day 19

Day 18

Day 17

Day 16

Day 15

Day 14

Day 13

Day12

Day 11

Day 10

Day 9

Day 8

Day 7

Day 6

Day 5

Day 4

Day 3

Day 2

Day 1

Penguin Cafe. A deep appreciation.


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On Sunday afternoon my good friend Jon Stevenson was round at the house and I asked him what Penguin Cafe Orchestra track he’d like me to play.  Quick as a flash he replied “Beanfields.”

So I was delighted when Arthur Jeffes announced that the next tune he was about to play at the Penguin Cafe gig at Edinburgh’s Queens Hall last night was the aforementioned Beanfields.

“That’s your favourite Jon.”  I whispered (this was a whispery occasion).

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that” he retorted, almost indignantly.

“Strange.” I thought.   But, on reflection, how can you choose a ‘favourite’ from PCO’s canon of work.

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Jon and I, and Jeana, first saw them together sometime around 1988 in Glasgow, not long after I had introduced Jon to the delights of ‘Telephone and Rubber band’.  Sadly we didn’t see them again before founder and composer Simon Jeffes’ death of a brain tumour in 1997.

So, imagine our delight when not only did Simon Jeffes’ son, Arthur, form a new band called Penguin Cafe (a 10 strong ensemble somewhat dwarfing the original 5) but that they were recording AND touring AND playing the old PCO work alongside their own compositions.

Jon and I, frankly, were made up.

As were our wives.

Since their formation in 2009 I have had the privilege of seeing them perform three times (The Usher Hall, Edinburgh, in 2012, Glastonbury, 2013, and last night.)

Each show was astounding in its own right.

The grandeur of The Usher Hall, the casual informality of Glastonbury and the intimacy of the Queens Hall each brought out different aspects of PC and PCO’s uniquely idiosyncratic style.

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What really made last night so fantastic though was the chance to meet them afterwards.

So Jeana came home with a thoroughly autographed copy of The Red Book (their new album which includes two NASA commissioned pieces).

We also both had a chance to chat with Violist and MD, Vince Greene and, at length, with violinist Darren Berry; resplendent in his Royal Stuart suit, surely worn specially for the occasion.

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I spoke to Arthur Jeffes and complimented him on the much changed rendition Harry Piers which he always dedicates to his dad.

Honestly, this was the best Christmas present Jeana could possibly have asked for because the whole show was truly brilliant with many old PCO favourites including Air a Dancer, Perpetuum Mobile, Telephone and Rubber Band and, of course, Music for a Found Harmonium, but it was perfectly complemented by PC’s own work including the aforementioned Harry Piers, the magnificent Landau and new work including the brilliant NASA commissioned, 1420 and Aurora.

All in all a truly memorable evening.

Thank you Arthur, Vince, Darren, Des, Andy, Rebecca, Neil, Tom, Cass and Pete (with guest appearance from the excellent support, Tom Baxter) .

We love you.

Penguin Cafe. A matter of Life


The reviews for this album have mostly been a little patronising and mildly dismissive as if it is some form of PCO lite offering.

I beg to differ.

I am, almost literally, a lifelong PCO fan and have every track they ever recorded, from the experimental Zopf days on the Obscure record label right through their “heydays’ of the 1980’s when their unique musical sound appeared on every second commercial or BBC/C4 soundtrack (most notably I have to say in the Independent’s launch advertising campaign).  So Simon Jeffes’ death in 1987 hit me like a hammer blow.  Ten years later his son, Arthur, began the slow but steady cryogenic rebirth, or perhaps more accurately the creation of a clone with ideas of its own.  This has culminated in the release of this instant classic album, a matter of life, which is, to all intent and purpose, PCO’s 5th studio album.

It has more piano than PCO but other than that it’s broadly the same thing, and certainly cut from the same cloth.

Track 2 (Landau) feature Jeffes and Kathry Tickell on her trademark Northumbrian pipes and its delicious.  Harry Piers, another piano only track was played at Jeffes Sr’s memorial concert and it bears every trademark PCO motif you could ever imagine which is what makes it both a great epitaph for Simon Jeffes but perhaps also a catharsis for Arthur.

The Fox and the Leopard is a carbon copy of a previous PCO song but for me the absolute standout is the minor key classic, From a Blue Temple.

In Penguin Cafe’s second album I’d expect the music to be slightly less of a tribute and to explore more of their own ideas, maybe more of a development from From a Blue Temple; and given that members of Suede and Gorillaz make up the 10 strong ensemble I’m pretty sure there will be new areas aplenty to explore.

For now though, this is a welcome and delightful discovery that I will treasure and hopefully wear out the grooves as much as its four forebears.

Ah, the Penguin Cafe (orchestra)


I don’t know if moving is the best word to describe the two and a half hours I spent with my wife in The Usher Hall; because I never cried.

But I’ll tell you what; it was emotional.

First up, The Portico Quartet; a jazz/modern classical “combo” who totally blew me away but were right on the cusp of Stuart Maconie’s Freakzone playlist (the sort of stuff that ordinarily Jeana would shriek across the house at me “turn that fucking shite off”).

She put up with them.

I adored them.

However, we were there for the Penguins, as we had been, 20 years ago, before we’d ever borne a child into this world. And I reckon it is the only “band” that Jeana has ever seen twice, albeit 20 years apart.

Before I comment on them I have to congratulate the sound engineers for both bands and probably the The Usher Hall itself – in forty years of listening to live music I have never been so aware of how good the acoustics were in a performance.

Now, The PC(O).

Simon Jeffes died in 1998. And we all thought the PCO had been snatched away with him; no posthumous recordings (although plenty of compilations).

And so it has been until his remarkable son, Arthur, decided to take up the reigns and form an entirely new ensemble with the name stripped down to the, perhaps more fashionable, Penguin Cafe.

Tonight they both reinterpreted his beloved father’s music with a Joi de vivre that even Simon could not muster and created new music, in the vein of the original PCO, that was jaw dropping.   In, particular the encore, a solo piano piece that Arthur performed at his father’s memorial service, Harry Piers, and Landau would have been career highs in Simon’s day.

All the favourites were there.

Particularly pleasing were Music for a Found Harmonium, Perpetuum Mobile and Telephone and Rubber Band, but what was most incredible was the quality of musicianship, the ownership they had taken over the material and the added zip that they injected to Jeffes original music.

It truly was on the verge of a religious experience.

After playing for over an hour and a half Jeana said to me ” I never stopped smiling from start to finish.”

I concur absolutely.

Meredith Monk. Songs of Ascension at The Royal Lyceum Theatre. Edinburgh Festival 2010


Well, it’s not every day you see a legend in the flesh.  When I say a legend, I don’t mean of Clooneyesque proportions.  I think we’re more in Daliesque territory because Meredith Monk (who records for ECM which might give you a clue) is not what you’d call mainstream.  Approaching 70, she led the line in her own production with grace and conviction.

Her and co writer, Ann Hamilton’s Songs of Ascension (which was commissioned by the wildly applauded Kronos Quartet) is never, ever going to trouble any sort of populist chart any day soon.  And the mass exodus from The theatre after about 15 minutes when it reached the height of “obscurity” was quite tell tale and amusing.

In the foyer beforehand I was told it was, to paraphrase, “pish”.

But it wasn’t.  It’s a devastatingly original smorgasbord of jungle noises, American Indian type language and a range of string and wind instrumentation that goes from dischordant noise to utter beauty in less than a minute.

There’s quite a lot of creepy hippy dancing and some blurry meaningful monochrome video in abundance too.

But.  It works.  I loved it.

Although I guess I’d be a little challenged to explain the plot – other than it’s about nature, getting back to one’s roots and rebirth.  Maybe.

Even Jeana loved it.  Mostly (sort of).

Moments of pure Penguin Cafe Orchestra magic, particularly when what sounded to me like a harmonium was to the fore, just blew me away and actually, if you put your mind to it, you could ignore the silly dances. (She’s famous for her dancing apparently.  But only in hippy circles.)

The choir (I assume put together locally) stole the show in the finale number and we all left happily.

Aah! Apart from the couple behind me who got a flea in their ear from me for chatting through the first 20 minutes.  “If you don’t like it you can leave.” I informed them.  “Some of us are trying to listen to this.”

Up they were shut!

Try this.  You’ll no doubt hate it.