Perfect Sound Forever

Penguin Cafe Orchestra

by Craig Breaden
(November 2004)

Jimmie Rodgers hopped the rails, and the world changed. The "Singing Brakeman" saw all that his green Earth had to offer – the rolling southern hills and delta country of the United States – and along the way picked up some blues to add to his bag of "hillbilly" songs. One of those might have come from bona fide ‘billy Riley Puckett, a blind guitar player who would come to fame with Gid Tanner's Skillet Lickers, and who in 1924 recorded "Rock All Our Babies to Sleep," a waltz-time favorite that spawned eleven more versions before Rodgers himself laid it down in 1932. Where Puckett might disappear into the scratchy crackle of just another hillbilly 78, however, he puts a hair-raising yodel at the end of each chorus. It is a compelling moment that may have spoken volumes to Rodgers, who mastered many "blue yodels" up ‘til his death in 1933, their popularity earning him the mantle of country music's first true star.

Yodeling suited the new Babel of radio, and it is little wonder that Rodgers had as much influence on blues as he did on country music. To listen back to his songs today, it's as if the turnarounds between verses, where the many-hued "yodel-ay-heees" speak to us in tongues, are a kind of reverent return to an original common language afforded by the luxury of recorded sound; it is a quality that errant British guitarist Simon Jeffes, nearly a half-century later, might have termed "imaginary folklore." And, in Jeffes' hands, the yodel would be transformed into an imaginary cultural cornerstone.

Disillusioned with both the academy and the avant-garde, Jeffes made a career of crossing borders. A first step occurred while traveling in Japan in 1972, when he heard a tape of African music that sparked an ecstatic experience revealing to him, "why it is we play music, that gut level sound of humans being human." That same year, Jeffes had a feverish vision, again in a foreign clime, this time the south of France. He dreamt of a place, "where everybody was taken up with self-interested activity, which kept them looped in on themselves. It wasn't like they were prisoners, they were all active, but only within themselves." In response to the visceral African music he had heard on the one hand, and to this flattened dream-world on the other, Jeffes created a separate vision he termed the Penguin Café, where the "unconscious can just be," and that would guide the musical output, over the next 25 years, of his Penguin Café Orchestra.

The Orchestra evolved slowly; its albums took time, starting with Music from the Penguin Café (1976), which tends to divide fans and critics. The product of an early association with its executive producer Brian Eno, it ably bears the stamp of the EG Records catalogue, and is at home beside Eno, King Crimson, and the galaxy of unclassifiable modern British musicians who landed at the label. Its electric instrumentation gives the album an unsettling quality that is almost conscientiously avant-garde. It shares, with its successors, absurd titles (a personal favorite, "Hugebaby"), a love of simplicity, and a fine timelessness.

The self-titled second album did not arrive until 1981, and is considered by many their definitive work. Like great records should, Penguin Café Orchestra captures its composer and musicians at a critical moment of prowess, an acoustic sensibility replacing the stiffer electric stance, its fantastically melodic themes performed concisely, and with intense discipline. Broadcasting from Home (1984) and Signs of Life (1987) continued that trend, and by the 90s their work was so associated with "themes" that Jeffes began undertaking soundtracks and scores (he had already gained some notoriety for arranging "My Way" for Sid Vicious and Malcolm McLaren). These included a ballet based on Orchestra music, Still Life at the Penguin Café Orchestra, and the soundtrack to the film Oskar and Leni. The scores included PCO standards arranged for larger orchestras, a development that would bear fruit on their last studio album, Union Café, featuring new pieces comparatively fleshed out, both in length and in orchestral depth. Their two live albums, 1987's When in Rome (recorded, in actuality, at the Royal Festival Hall in London) and 1995's Concert Program offer a nice comparison of this shift as well, the former capturing the simplicity of their earlier work, the latter making use of extended instrumentation.

Despite the consistency, progression and weight of their work, however, dial up Penguin Café Orchestra in your favorite record guide, and you will find a) Nothing at all (even Mark Prendergast's sprawling and comprehensive Ambient Century presents naught but a great hole in the index where Penguin Café Orchestra should be); b) Befuddled hipster confusion, usually concluding with the unfortunate designation "New Age," or, less typically, c) Jeffes' own description of their music, as "imaginary folklore."

For the sake of "imaginary context," we can embellish a bit, adding that the Orchestra created music in a chamber setting that might, for temporary convenience only, be considered "hillbilly ambient" or "minimalist hot jazz," echoing the displacement of its author's life. For Simon Jeffes, like Jimmie Rodgers before him, hitting the road was a way of being. The roots of both men were in "this culture of slightly dispossessed people who live in the modern West but haven't got one rooted home." For all such dispossession the Orchestra itself remained remarkably cohesive over the years: Helen Liebmann's cello informed nearly every composition with equal parts grace and rhythmic chug, Neil Rennie's ukelele kept things skipping lightly, Gavyn Wright contributed on violin, and Geoffrey Richardson's and Simon Jeffes' filled in, or left out, anything that did or didn't belong. The album art, by Emily Young, was another constant, importantly defining the band visually as at once fun, mysterious, and potentially rather dark.

Yodels are like that, too – silly, deeply communicative, shaded. Riley Puckett knew it, Jimmie Rodgers capitalized on it, and Simon Jeffes found an anchor in it. Starting with their second record, Penguin Café Orchestra, the group's albums are littered with yodels. Some, like "Yodel 1," "Yodel 2," "Prelude and Yodel," "Yodel 3," make their intentions plain (although, as in most of the Orchestra's output, vocals are absent, if not missed), suggesting a train on approach, making the bend, stepping down, energy released and restored. This from a clipped guitar, a plaintive piano, a lone cello, looping their themes like an acoustic Kraftwerk, so you can hear the creak of the wood, the incremental variations, and the chance that's involved with every note. The Orchestra never gave short shrift to chance.

Although Jeffes' British-ness reverberates through the group's tendency to a pastoral loveliness, reminiscent of the orchestrations of Nick Drake's best work, his vision in song is continental in scope, looking in turns to the avant-garde, "world" musics, and in particular to the repetitive power of the country blues. The simple "Telephone and Rubber Band" is at once cerebral and gut wrenching, moving from an exercise in making music out of a telephone signal to a woozy-bloozy, cello-driven resolution. Philip Glass getting his fingers dirty? A hillbilly Erik Satie, or drawling Raymond Scott? Waves of understanding now wash over us: it is all this and more, so as to avoid description rather than disturb the "unconsciousness," and not dare look into the face of God, it is better to leave it as is. Like contemporaries such as Cluster or Popol Vuh, Penguin Café Orchestra risks remaining mute in history, having made a music that speaks many languages.

If folklore somehow comes from a common cultural expression, Penguin Café Orchestra might be ahead of the game in creating it, despite the "imaginary" quality of their folksong and perhaps because of their very anonymity in the literature. Their works appear often in commercials, themes for film, TV, and radio, and on others' albums. That you are hearing the Orchestra's "Perpetuum Mobile," "The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas," or "Music for a Found Harmonium," is perhaps less important than the unshakeable feeling you have heard this music before.

Annotated discography, excluding compilations:

Music from the Penguin Café [1976; Editions EG] | Adorned with an almost camp melody, the opening track on Music from the Penguin Café, "Penguin Café Single," seems at odds with the rest of the album, and could almost come from their final record. A subtle electric glow (gloom?) shades the rest of the record, a series of vignettes including the brilliant "In a Sydney Motel," one of the Orchestra's very few vocal tracks; it straddles a Velvet Underground/Faust/Slapp Happy continuum, and wouldn't sound out-of-place on any number of recordings being released today. The perennial from this album, however, is "Giles Farnaby's Dream," a "collaboration" between centuries-dead composer Farnaby and Jeffes, who creates an epic baroque hoedown akin to the Beatles' "Piggies."

Penguin Café Orchestra [1981; Editions EG] | The comparatively long "Numbers 1-4," at seven minutes, is Penguin Café Orchestra's thematic centerpiece, so richly gorgeous as to distract the listener from the album's overall musical severity, a tight discipline that is the record's fountainhead. Yodels, airs, and breakdowns, and even a dervish version of "Walk Don't Run" fill a space that's at once contemplative and enormously positive. It is a delicate balance that was achieved over a three-year period of composition and recording.

Broadcasting from Home [1984; Editions EG] | A companion piece to Penguin Café Orchestra, Broadcasting from Home shares many of that album's characteristics. Opening the album, "Music for a Found Harmonium" rises from a drone like steam from the harmonium that was, in fact, found by Jeffes just lying on a Kyoto street, having been tossed out by its owner. It breaks into a Celtic dance, swinging so hard there was no way the Irish couldn't take notice, as they did, in fact, when the group Patrick Street covered the song to great success on 3 Irish Times 3. The balance of Broadcasting from Home continues the feel, swaying through "Prelude and Yodel" to "Music by Numbers" and "Isle of View (Music for Helicopter Pilots)," with a graceful tilt signaling the complete comfort Jeffes and group felt with the material. There is even a brief return to the first album with "More Milk," interpreting that record's "Milk" within an almost African setting.

Signs of Life [1987; Editions EG] | A quieter, maturing record that hints at unease, Signs of Life follows the themes of the previous two albums with a more contemplative tone, its standouts including "Southern Jukebox Music," the oft-heard "Perpetuum Mobile," and the long, drifting, refreshingly uncharacteristic "Wildlife." The opener, "Bean Fields," and "Dirt" harken back to Penguin Café Orchestra's classic "Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas."

When in Rome [Live, 1988; Editions EG] | This live album served, for some years, as the best introduction to the Orchestra; they remained fairly faithful to their originals, but stretched a bit.

Still Life at the Penguin Café Orchestra (the score to David Bintley's ballet of the same name) [1990; Decca] | A successful reworking of Orchestra songs for a ballet based on the group's music, Still Life at the Penguin Café Orchestra gave Jeffes the opportunity to arrange his music for a new setting, a development that would be felt on subsequent recordings.

Union Café [1993; Zopf] | Exhibiting in places a greater reliance on orchestration, perhaps the result of Jeffe's score and soundtrack work, Union Café builds themes in similar fashion to the Orchestra's best songs, with an added formality and elegiac beauty that moves much of the work here towards the realm of classical chamber music. The tracks are longer, perhaps reflecting composition for CD rather than vinyl, and at times one gets the sense the concise discipline exercised on early albums is, if not absent, less of a guiding principle. This may be a good thing, depending on one's point of view. Songs like "Nothing Really Blue," "CAGE DEAD" (occasioned by John Cage's death, it uses the progression of the title as its theme, with a rhythm suggesting a Native American chant), and the frenetic, nervy "Yodel 3" show a band gleefully reworking themes, building anew, and most definitely moving forward. The solo piano of "Silver Star of Bologna" and "Kora Kora" are eye-opening glimpses into the gracefulness Jeffes achieved as a composer.

Concert Program [Live, 1995; Zopf] | A nice two-disc set that treats much of the material from Union Café, and older work, to an orchestral concert setting, with admirable success. This Orchestra is of a different sort than the one that played on When in Rome – richer and fuller – and therefore a worthwhile companion to the first piece, even where dealing with the same songs (which suggests these works might continue to benefit from future interpretation).

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