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CD Review: Penguin Café – A Matter of Life…

Penguin Café - A Matter of Life...

The new album from Arthur Jeffes, Penguin Café

I’ve written many words about my fondness for the original Penguin Café Orchestra and its proprietor, Simon Jeffes, and you might have already read my review of the recent concert by the revived, rebooted, Penguin Café helmed by son-of-Jeffes, Arthur. Well now there’s an album of new material written by Arthur Jeffes featuring this new configuration of musicians.

It’s a hard job to fill anyone’s footsteps, probably even harder to fill your father’s footsteps but “A Matter of Life..” is brave attempt at resurrecting his musical heritage. Before you even listen to the CD you have to commend his strength of character for even attempting such a feat. I mean, what if the record is a stinker? What if it is just a piss-poor shadow of the original Penguin Café music?

Thankfully, the answer to those questions is a resounding “No!”. There are some classic moments on the record where you forget that this is Jeffes Jr work and you kid yourself that the PCO are back in town, the opening track “That, Not That” and “Landau” are examples of the music just spiriting you away to the good old days and a are worth the price of admission alone.

And while it is a brave record, you can sense that there is a lot of nostalgia here, the tunes are looking back and not looking forward. A lot of the musical cues and ticks and styles are borrowed wholesale from Jeffes Snr (the “Fox and the Leopard”, for example). Is this a bad thing? Yes, if you are looking for a work of startling genius. No, if you accept the record and the project for what it is: remembering and reviving.

I must admit I’ve never experienced music or a record like this before. It feels right as a continuation, but the snickering cynic at the back of my mind asks: “Is this music genuine – does it come from a genuine place?” I don’t want to even try and answer that because I have already accepted the record and I can’t imagine my own children being remotely interested in the music I make, let alone setting out on a path to recreate it.

The bottom line is that if you are a Penguin Café Orchestra fan and you want the closest thing to bringing the band back from the dead and experiencing a new PCO album, then this is it. My only criticism is some of the later tracks feel a little underdeveloped and meandering, but the original band were guilty of this trait sometimes too.

It truly is a remarkable piece of work and my admiration for Arthur Jeffes continues. I look forward to seeing the band again in May.

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It is hard to believe, but it has been four and a half years since my last gig. My self-imposed exile meant that I have not been able to worship at the shrine for such a long time, so it was quite apt that such a musical banquet was served up to me last night.
I had been looking forward to the concert since it was announced because it was my first chance to see the Portico Quartet who I’ve admired since hearing their first album two years ago and it was also the first proper London outing for the Penguin Café, but more about them later.

The music of the Portico Quartet is straddles genres – the use of saxophone and upright bass puts the band firmly in the jazz camp, while the utilisation of the hang drum adds a new age/world music slant to their output. The band is purely instrumental and we were treated to performances from both their debut and follow-up albums, “Knee-Deep in the North Sea” and “Isla”.

The performance was truly mesmeric. The music, for me, transporting and expansive – showcasing the unique sound of the band. Tunes played included, “Lifemask” with its strange looping beginnings, “News from Verona”, “Line” and “Clipper” – there might have been others by my memory isn’t want it was and I don’t remember their tunes by name, just by familiarity.

I was surprised just how much use of looping there was by the band with both the saxophonist and drummer preparing and triggering loops, and sending ethereal noises into the sonic backdrop. The drummer also appeared to be responsible for some live mixing on the set as he often was seen scrambling to adjust his mixer whilst playing.

I thought it was a truly superb performance and I felt old and “over the hill” seeing these young fellows being so adept at their craft. The music was so engaging that by the end of the hour-long set, I felt emotionally drained and exhausted by the performance – in a good way, of course.

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After a short interlude, whilst road crew scurried around removing equipment and preparing the stage, the Penguin Café headed by Arthur Jeffes took the stage. What is the Penguin Café? It’s not the Penguin Café Orchestra, for that was a completely different beast. It is not a cover band. It’s not a reboot (although Arthur Jeffes coined that terminology during the set). It’s similar but different – like looking at the world through a new set of eyes, or listening to the Penguin’s albums with someone else’s ears.
The strength of goodwill and positive feeling washed upon the stage and it was a good night. I thought it took the band a few songs to hit their stride, but it didn’t matter, for this was a special night and a night I thought I’d never see happen. To imagine that I’d hear these songs again performed live was fantasy since the untimely death of Simon Jeffes and for his son to pick up the reins was an incredibly brave thing to do.

What to say? If you love the Penguin Café Orchesta, you will love this band. It just has to be. You will forgo the complaints that the guitar playing on “Dirt” isn’t as good, or that Arthur’s ukulele playing needs a little work and that there appears to be too many people on stage at once, because it’s not about that. It’s about celebration, for the concert was more than just a run-through of a few old songs, it felt like a celebration of the music and a way of preserving the musical legacy put-down by Simon Jeffes.
Arthur Jeffes is a personable young man with a deft line in rambling, humble stories and he does a grand job as band leader. The band itself is a sprawling mess of talent, with many of them dressed as if they’d just escaped from a Victorian lunatic asylum, which is kind of jarring when they first hit the stage. Of course, this is stage craft and very few bands these days try to attempt to engage with their audiences in this way.

All the old favourites were performed such as “Telephone and Rubber Band”, “Music for a Found Harmonium” and “Perpetuum Mobile” as well as new tracks from the freshly-released Arthur Jeffes-penned “A Matter of Life…” album.
I thought it was a truly wonderful evening of music and a rich feast for a cultural starved man as myself. It was good to be a part of it and one of the best concert experiences I’ve ever had and one I will remember for a long while.

And to be a total publicity whore, for those of you visiting via Google, feel free to check out my music at iTunes: http://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/darren-lock/id4151062