When life in the rat race becomes too stressful it’s not uncommon forthe top-tier earners to want a way out; a move to the country – or toanother country, somewhere hot by the sea – and slum it, go native,perhaps tend an orchard, raise pigs or something similar. Simon Jeffes,founder of the Penguin Café Orchestra, apparently found himselfcreatively in this position in the early 1970s; worn out by the rigidformality of the classical music he’d been brought up playing, butapparently with no appetite for the noise of rock or the pomp of prog, hefell off the map and formed a loose ensemble to play tradition-free folkmusic.
Put together with whatever people and instruments happened to be to handthe Penguin Café Orchestra was conceived, part campfire jam, partPhilip Glass meditative experiment in repetition and minimalism,but always with a very accessible sense of melody, under the banner ofBrian Eno‘s label Obscure Records. Since then the music has beenwidely heard but less widely identified; its combination of simplicity andupbeat melodic accessibility rather inevitably caught the ears ofadvertisers and film music fixers, and their bigger ‘hits’ will beinadvertently familiar to almost anyone with a TV.
Over a decade after Jeffes’ untimely death in 1997 his son, Arthur, haskicked a new group into life in homage and taken them on the road with anew album. This material was aired last year at the BBC Proms where itsat impressively well with works from the group’s previous 20-yearincarnation, which is a compliment both to Jeffes Jr’s understanding ofhis father’s style and also to the timeless nature of that style.
A Matter of Life… is a collection of instrumental tracks principallyfor piano and bowed strings but also performed with various forms ofpercussion, ukuleles, cuatros, double bass and pipes. The tracks aregenerally built around a groove or a rhythm rather than a melody and oftenfeel almost improvised, though they tend to divide into two kinds. Thereare the eclectic, energetic, almost tropical workouts – The Fox And TheLeopard is built around double bass and shakers and evokes sun-bleachedMediterranean beaches, as do Pale Peach Jukebox and Two Beans Shaker,whose percussion sounds like ants eating Rice Krispies – and there aretracks like Finland, Coriolis and the openers Landau and That, Not That,led by the piano with slow bowed strings as an accompaniment to give bodyto the syncopated rhythms. This can feel limited at times, and a bit morelike a scripted one-man show than the light hearted collaborationsuggested otherwise, but on the whole it works well.
Stylistically, A Matter of Life… is a near-perfect match with thePenguin Café Orchestra of old. It is undeniably easy-listening backgroundmusic, but of the best possible kind: it can be a passive soundtrack butgenerally stands up just as well to direct attention. There are nostand-out ‘hits’ – no Music For A Found Harmonium or Telephone And RubberBand – and the whole can feel a bit lacking in substance, but in terms ofits aims – “sort of a love letter to the original PCO music” – it’s adefinite success. As long as you know what to expect.