The leader of Penguin Cafe, Arthur Jeffes, recently explained that the band’s third album had been inspired in part by thinking about the imperfections of life and the realisation that they are often the basis for much of what we enjoy and value. On the surface, tonight’s album launch show at Omeara didn’t immediately prompt thoughts of imperfection, largely due to the high level of musicianship and confident, polished execution on display. However, it is an idea that, in a more obtuse way, has always been with Penguin Cafe (and with Penguin Cafe Orchestra, the band led by Arthur’s father from the early 1970’s until his death in 1997).
This is namely the fact that neither band can easily be categorised or placed within exclusive musical genres. In this way they’ve never been the ‘purest’ of acts, having derived inspiration and ideas from across the spectrum of music (and indeed the world – as seen in some of the ‘themes’ that permeate the titles of their tracks – recurring references to numbers, yodels, beans and colonies in particular). Things like this have undoubtedly contributed to the endlessly fascinating nature of their music.
The first half of tonight’s show sees their new album played in full, in order. It is ironic perhaps given the background but the opening two tracks, Ricercar and Cantorum, both seem to be exercises in musical refinement and perfecting when seen in the context of recent Penguin Cafe history. Minimalist piano rotations run throughout with strings being carefully added as they progress. In one sense they’re like little, self-contained musical treatises on concepts lie motion and fluidity, in others they’re just simply beautiful, pristine pieces of music (music working on different levels, quite often simultaneously, has also always been a regular Penguin Cafe Orchestra trait).
They play their delicately rendered, nimble cover of Kraftwerk’s Franz Schubert which is then followed by the sensitive, engaging traversal over semi-familiar ground that is Half Certainty, led tonight by Neil Codling on melodica. Protection meanwhile is a graceful, effusive canter around the string section. On Rescue the strings sound more fleshed out and fuller than ever before, broad brushstrokes building to a gloriously finessed climax, arguably the highlight of the album.
Now Nothing (Rock Music) returns them to more abstract and muted territory before they close with their cover of Wheels Within Wheel by Simian Mobile Disco which soars like a magnificent bird formation (and also backs up Jeffes’ comments that the album is a sort of “acoustic tribute to electronica”).
For the second half we are treated to a selective run through of Penguin Cafe Orchestra hits. We get thrilling confirmation of how Music For A Found Harmonium still shimmies and sparkles joyously and also how Perpetuum Mobile remains the glistening jewel in their crown. Air A Danser, once described by Simon Jeffes as “an Englishman’s reaction to hearing Madagascan zither music” – more musical inspiration like this please – sounds as bucolic as ever, its sensuous wordless chorus hitting the mark each time. As the set draws to a close they wheel out their party tunes. Elements of their music may have a pleasingly cerebral feel in places but Bean Fields and Swing The Cat are tonight just downright musical fun, ending the show on an exuberant and ecstatic note. They cap a brilliant transformation – fallibility and errancy may have their place in life but tonight Penguin Cafe came dangerously close to perfection.