Now, this is the right time to bring Simon Jeffes’s Penguin Cafe Orchestra back again. Back in 1976, no one was quite ready for their Neoclassical style of chamber folk music. His vision of combining various worldly folk traditions under one shapeshifting sound created a template that touches on a lot of modern post-rock and folktronica movements. So, thoroughly honest and unpretentious in his pursuit of a “imaginary folklore”, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s music would wrongly be pigeonholed under New Age, Ambient, or World Music genres. The first album was a brilliant piece of ruminative music, this second album would be an active exploration.
What was so interesting in 1976 about their debut was that it was a piece of meditative work basing its experimentation in classic folk instruments. What was so interesting about 1981’s imaginatively titled Penguin Cafe Orchestra is that he presents a far more strident composition, one that goes into moods of imagination and jubilation. You can hear that this kind of movement symbolized a more human interaction with their listeners.
In spite of continuing an artistic theme, the frequent use of the penguin character in artwork and promo materials, they never let you forget that this music wasn’t made by a faceless band twiddling knobs. When so many bands were looking to integrate synthesizers into their music in the ’80s, here was a band who used a telephone ringtone as the main thrust of a track. They weren’t Luddites but they had a role to play. Simon knew how far folk music had left to be explored, and rightfully penned another salvo to the sustain and release such styles can maintain in this new decade when others were running away from it.
The opener “Air á Danser” presents such a reverberation. Led by Simon’s Latin-lilting airy arpeggiating chords and his open-hearted innocent vocals, the track builds into this wonderful dance where his voice gets carried through by all these other new influences a spare baroque piano here and there, a string sound places in the annals of Indian raga music and much more. Every time, Simon doing a wonderful thing to prepare you for all these new layers of music. Every so while you’ll hear him dissolving sonically the main melody to its bare essence, then use the next section (with its introduction of new accompaniment) to push forward into an even more beautiful mood.
Music like Simon’s is hard to describe for a reason, most of it exists outside easy categorization. When you read a song titled “Yodel 1” you expect to hear something, but if you listen to it what strikes you is how his band reconfigures itself to play ambient-like bluegrass music that doesn’t sound like bluegrass. “Telephone and Rubber Band” takes the most English of sounds, their phone ringtone, and uses its musical sound to build a catchy string composition around it. Gorgeous tracks like the bicycle spoke led “Cutting Branches for a Temporary Shelter” evoke an childlike beauty that held little peers for its time. It’s the kind of music that evokes nostalgia from sounds that we somehow associate with the past, but does so in such a way that is far more progressive than it leads on.
How do you handle a lighthearted track like “Pythagoras’s Trousers” one a music critic would know has all these uniquely brilliant artistic German krautrock influences, but one that also gets all its would be pretension subverted by rolling in Zydeco styles and ukulele accompaniment. You can take Simon’s music very seriously, but he made it in such a way so that you shouldn’t. In the end this lightheartedness is what makes this album still sound so timeless. Anyone young and old, can probably make out the instruments used to make every track, but the way they play together makes it so that anyone can relate to one of its folk snapshots. So wonderfully anachronistic…just like the name neo-folk in a way, the childish music of the intellectual Simon Jeffes’ (if you stick around and listen to the rest of the album) rightfully will remain this timeless bit of beauty from 1981. Life is made up of individual small moments, making up this whole other grander thing, and that is something masterfully captured here. We’ll venture further into the neo-folk of 1981 soon though…
– Bonus track: I know there are plenty of live videos of them on Youtube but this one of my faves. Here’s Simon showing how he created “Telephone and Rubber Band” and then taking a turn at performing it: