When life in the rat race becomes too stressful it’s not uncommon for the top-tier earners to want a way out; a move to the country – or to another 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 Cafe Orchestra, apparently found himself creatively in this position in the early 1970s; worn out by the rigid formality of the classical music he’d been brought up playing, but apparently with no appetite for the noise of rock or the pomp of prog, he fell off the map and formed a loose ensemble to play tradition-free folk music.
Put together with whatever people and instruments happened to be to hand the Penguin Cafe Orchestra was conceived, part campfire jam, part Philip Glass meditative experiment in repetition and minimalism, but always with a very accessible sense of melody, under the banner of Brian Eno‘s label Obscure Records. Since then the music has been widely heard but less widely identified; its combination of simplicity and upbeat melodic accessibility rather inevitably caught the ears of advertisers and film music fixers, and their bigger ‘hits’ will be inadvertently familiar to almost anyone with a TV.
Over a decade after Jeffes’ untimely death in 1997 his son, Arthur, has kicked a new group, Penguin Cafe, into life in homage and taken them on the road with anew album. This material was aired last year at the BBC Proms where its at impressively well with works from the group’s previous 20-year incarnation, which is a compliment both to Jeffes Jr’s understanding of his father’s style and also to the timeless nature of that style.
A Matter of Life… is a collection of instrumental tracks principally for piano and bowed strings but also performed with various forms of percussion, ukuleles, cuatros, double bass and pipes. The tracks are generally built around a groove or a rhythm rather than a melody and often feel almost improvised, though they tend to divide into two kinds. There are the eclectic, energetic, almost tropical workouts – The Fox And The Leopard is built around double bass and shakers and evokes sun-bleached Mediterranean beaches, as do Pale Peach Jukebox and Two Beans Shaker, whose percussion sounds like ants eating Rice Krispies – and there are tracks like Finland, Coriolis and the openers Landau and That, Not That, led by the piano with slow bowed strings as an accompaniment to give body to the syncopated rhythms. This can feel limited at times, and a bit more like a scripted one-man show than the light hearted collaboration suggested otherwise, but on the whole it works well.
Stylistically, A Matter of Life… is a near-perfect match with the Penguin Cafe Orchestra of old. It is undeniably easy-listening background music, but of the best possible kind: it can be a passive soundtrack but generally stands up just as well to direct attention. There are no stand-out ‘hits’ – no Music For A Found Harmonium or Telephone And Rubber Band – and the whole can feel a bit lacking in substance, but in terms of its aims – “sort of a love letter to the original PCO music” – it’s a definite success. As long as you know what to expect.