The story behind Penguin Cafe Orchestra is always one worth retelling. In 1972, Simon Jeffes experienced a sort of recurring hallucinogenic dream caused by food poisoning. The dream was about a lifeless concrete building containing equally lifeless inhabitants. “The scene was for me one of ordered desolation,” he said.
But after feeling somewhat better he went to a beach and, from there, the first line of a poem “I am the proprietor of the Penguin Cafe. I will tell you things at random” came to mind. It was here that an imaginary and self-contained world, all built around spontaneity and creativity and framed within this imaginary cafe, began to form.
This creation inspired the music one would hear in the cafe. “It’s the sort of music played by imagined wild, free, mountain people creating sounds of a subtle dreamlike quality,” said Jeffes. “It is cafe music, but cafe in the sense of a place where people’s spirits communicate and mingle, a place where music is played that often touches the heart of the listener.”
Simon Jeffes passed away in 1997, with the likes of Music For A Found Harmonium and Telephone And Rubber Band just two hugely memorable – and much used – examples of the work he left. Fortunately, his son Arthur was determined to carry on playing his father’s work and in 2009, formed Penguin Cafe. However, it isn’t all a case of like father, like son; Arthur is a fully-fledged composer himself and The Red Book is Penguin Cafe’s second album, following on from 2011’s well-received A Matter Of Life.
Indeed, opener Aurora is rather different from the PCO material; this has a rather deeper, emotional core and is by no means one played by those so-called free mountain people. It’s almost Philip Glass like in its minimalism, stripped back, with the use cello and piano creating something that is dreamlike but also rather mellow. The same can be said about Solaris but there’s also an additional tenderness expressed here, especially when the strings and ukulele, which brings a real touch of the PCO, combine.
Black Hibiscus initially begins in a similar fashion, but then becomes upliftingly high-tempo and achieves something of a Spanish feel to it thanks to the double bass and flamencoesque guitar. This up-tempo mood continues into Bluejay, with the slightly jagged sounding violin buzzing around the smooth double bass to create that fluttering, bird-like feel.
Catania presents a marked shift from the preceding tracks, with the electro-acoustic guitar initially reverberating before layer-upon-layer of differing melodies arrive, starting with violin, bass, another layer of violin and electric guitar. This is, perhaps, the most PCO track of the album; the rhythms are reminiscent of some of Jeffes Snr’s most well-known work, but yet it feels different: there’s an added meticulousness to this. This is very skilfully done. As is following track 1420, with just piano and finger-picked guitar weaving into one another before subtle touches of organ and harmonica arrive, bringing the minimal and the somewhat mellow back with it.
Moonbo takes us right back to Glass territory, with the repetitive violin reminiscent of Glass’ later work. But again, layers of strings and instruments seem to reveal themselves subtly and almost without notice, building something detailed and precise in the process. Odeon is far more playful, especially with hints of recorder adding something of an Irish tint to it and spot of laughter in the background. Album closer (The Roaring Of A) Silent Sun is a gentle and appropriately dreamy conclusion, the plucking of a single cello string all the way, suggesting the passing of night into day, against the somewhat joyous sounding strings marking a bright new day.
The essence of what made Penguin Cafe Orchestra is here: the music is dreamlike and does indeed touch the heart of the listener. Yet Jeffes Jnr achieves this differently; compared to his father’s work, which is full of enduring melodies that often verged on the experimental, this is more composed and less “wild”. That certainly doesn’t mean it’s as affecting, though. The spirit of Simon Jeffes lives on, but with a satisfying new dimension to it. He would be proud of Arthur no doubt.