This is the second instalment in my campaign to introduce a new term into the dictionary of musical styles: orchestral beats. That tag first appeared in my review of the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra in November of last year. Then last week’s Release Radar included something that sounded very similar: Cantorum by Penguin Café. As far as I know there is no connection between the two bands. That they sound so alike must be a case of convergent evolution.
Penguin Café is a continuation of the Penguin Café Orchestra project started in 1972 by the guitarist, composer and arranger Simon Jeffes. The original ensemble released 5 studio albums and two live albums between 1976 and 1995. The music on those records is difficult to categorise. Imagine a small dance orchestra that plays an assortment of folk, classical and dance pieces from various parts of the world. The PCO, however, were known for their unfettered approach to music as much as for their material. Their most well-known tune, Telephone and Rubber Band, features the simultaneous ring and engaged tones of an old-fashioned telephone when there was a fault on the line. They were not a band who would be confined by the straitjacket of musical conventions.
In 1997 Simon Jeffes died of a brain tumour and the PCO formally disbanded. Several members of the group reunited in 2007 and continued to perform the PCO’s back-catalogue, first as The Anteaters and later as The Orchestra That Fell To Earth. Then, in 2009, Simon Jeffes’ son, Arthur, formed an entirely separate group to continue his father’s project. The new band included musicians from the Royal College of Music and members of Suede and Gorillaz. It was called, simply, Penguin Café.
Crotchety Man has lent his ears to much of the PCO and Penguin Café portfolio. Generally speaking I find the early material a little too twee for my taste. But it gets better. Penguin Café‘s two albums to date, A Matter of Life (2011) and The Red Book (2014) are quite listenable although I wouldn’t describe them as stunning. The latest release is Cantorum, a single from the forthcoming album, The Imperfect Sea, due out on 5th May and to my mind it’s the best track yet.
In tone and texture Cantorum is an ambient orchestral piece but there’s enough of a beat in the background violins and the piano to unlock a sleepy grandma’s eyelids and have grandad tapping the arm of his beach chair as he absent-mindedly watches the children playing on the sand. Its 7 minutes 22 seconds pass in no time, like a breath of warm sea air. As it plays a lifetime of memories are reflected in the old man’s eyes, and the ghost of a by-gone era watermarks his wife’s contented thoughts. For Cantorum is the song that knits their lives together.
Penguin Café don’t quite reach the summits scaled by Hidden Orchestra but they are now on the same path. And two climbing parties originally from opposite sides of the style mountain must, surely, justify giving this proud peak a name. So I ask once again, what could be a more appropriate tag than “orchestral beats”?
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