First there was the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Now, the Penguin Cafe. Simon Jeffes brought together the PCO in 1973, continuing for the next two-decades-plus to record instrumental and mostly acoustic neo-classical curios mixed with elements of ambient, new age and world music. In 2009, Arthur Jeffes, son of Simon, formed the Penguin Cafe. Simon had passed in ’97, and 10 years later a series of successful PCO reunion concerts inspired Arthur to resurrect his father’s band. The present manifestation features many of the pleasant idiosyncrasies of its previous incarnation, so the musical distance that divides the two is roughly as significant as the difference in name.
The Imperfect Sea is the Cafe’s third album and their first for Erased Tapes, having self-released the previous two. From the start it’s propelled by a repetitive kineticism similar to what ran through PCO favorites like “Perpetuum Mobile” and “Music for a Found Harmonium.” There are also moments like “Half Certainty” that recall some of the more waggish pieces – e.g. “Telephone and Rubber Band” – that helped to populate albums by the PCO. According to Jeffes, the album’s “departure,” if their truly is one, is in his attempt “to create a musical world that would feel familiar to an audience more used to dance records” but would at the same time “stay true to [the group’s] own values… [by] replac[ing] electronic layers with real instruments.”
Frankly, it’s hard to hear very much of this as dance music. Even the tracks that reimagine Kraftwerk (“Franz Schubert”) and Simian Mobile Disco (“Wheels Within Wheels”) for the Penguin Cafe’s acoustic and often faintly (or explicitly) Celtic sound have less in common with electronic dance music than they do with ambient electronica. While it really wouldn’t be so strange for an audience to move their feet to tracks like “Cantorum” or “Ricercar” – the titles of which suggest classical, not pop, forms – the music on The Imperfect Sea might be more at home in other settings. To these ears, the Cafe’s latest effort might not fill the dance floor quite as successfully as it could soundtrack a film.
The track “Rescue,” for instance, builds from next to nothing into something plainly cinematic, with a climax that evokes forward movement, adventure, even conquest. “Protection” too has its cinematic moments, though it sounds like it would be equally at home on a Windham Hill disc from the early ’90s. It features a more nebulous, quiet intro that’s overtaken by rolling figures in muted piano, plucked strings and fingerpicked acoustic guitar. That percolating bed of sound becomes the background to a languid but anthemic long-tone melody played by two violins.
A handful of tracks on the album follow this same pattern, with melodies that stretch themselves slowly but confidently over top of the rhythmic scaffolding that holds them up. That scaffolding is built from repeated figures that project motion and stasis, while the melodies often feel like an afterthought. This isn’t a criticism, necessarily. At the same time, it has a definite effect, making it that much easier for the album to recede into the listener’s background, like a good film score would.
The propulsive energy of The Imperfect Sea dissipates in the tracks “Control 1 (Interlude)” and “Now Nothing (Rock Music).” The first is seven droney minutes of harmonium and strings, with mid- and low-register piano interjections quite low in the mix. It’s pleasant enough but also saps the momentum of the album’s two opening tracks. Perhaps it comes too soon, though that’s a funny thing to say considering that nearly 12 minutes have elapsed by the time this “Interlude” begins. (Still, there’s a case to be made that this collection of songs would be made much more satisfying with an entirely different track order.)
“Now Nothing (Rock Music)” is a re-working of a piece – same name, minus the parenthetical – by the elder Jeffes. Both versions feature piano, but the original also included solo violin, wordless voice and a percussive accompaniment in what could have been prepared piano or xylophone. Here Simon’s wistful melody is played by Arthur on piano alone (save some subtle processing). Like much of the rest of the album, the notes move, as if rolling over some bucolic landscape or perhaps advancing and receding like an eternal tide. It’s a thoughtful moment of relative peace and an affectionate homage to the progenitor of the Penguin family enterprise, nestled within an album that is itself a continuation of Arthur Jeffes’ ongoing tribute to his father’s musical legacy.