Album Reviews

Sundog – Insofar

(Editions Penguin Café) UK release date: 3 September 2012

Lineage is for the lazy, homage for the brave. Arthur Jeffes knows music will find no life by hunting around in its graves, yet he is heir to a creative legacy that he is unwilling to let moulder. In reviving his father Simon Jeffes‘ life-work the Penguin Café Orchestra, Jeffes the younger sought not exhumation but an adequate memorial.

The PCO was perhaps best known for its film-and-advert-friendly melodies – Music For A Found Harmonium adorning the joyful credits of Napoleon Dynamite, Telephone And Rubber Band was the sound of phone companies gone by. But when Arthur brought Penguin Café to the 2010 Proms, and, latterly, to an album of new material, 2011’s A Matter Of Life…, he forgot the references and only the eclectic, joyful freedom of spirit lived on. It was done in tribute, not by some ancestral compulsion for mimicry.

What, then, of Sundog, the offshoot project of Jeffes Jr. (as pianist) and that erstwhile nomad Oli Langford, pop culture’s session violinist of choice? Lineage or homage? The answer, gracefully revealed by debut album Insofar, turns out to be ‘neither’. There are nods to PCO’s populist take on classical instrumentation – piano and strings motifs form the core – but none of their folksy charm. This is a work concerned with its own ambitions and, seemingly, its own vision about life. From an infancy of simplicity and repetition in Light On Stone and 4LB, an adolescent identity emerges in Boso I and II; a maturity of drama in the delicious The Heart Waits and Shadows In Water; and then onwards to its end: a shift through fey abandon, in A Simple Loss, to the morbid lament of Both Hands In Pockets.

And, if Insofar has echoes of life, perhaps it is even of Jeffes’ own. A sense of chapters, of growth, emerges, with a notable shift between the halves of the album. Much of the first – birthed, originally, as a standalone EP – is laboured, sometimes turgid; its direction riven by uncertainty. But in The Heart Waits, and Shadows In Water, there’s suddenly impassioned piano, and virtuoso strings – making the denouement a thrilling change of pace (if one so markedly more stirring that it almost jars). Yet it also suggests an awakened creativity; a blossoming desire to express. This feels like Arthur Jeffes’ own voice.

Sundog moves on from PCO – a descendant, an inheritor, but not a reproduction. Insofar has no folksy populism, yet it is similarly accessible and, at times, glorious. These were the hallmarks of PCO – and, even if the tune and timbre have changed, in capturing that essence as he moves into his own creations, Jeffes pays homage exactly through an independence of his lineage. Fans of either generation will know the scale of this accomplishment. Wondrous.

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Sundog – Insofar