Penguin Cafe Orchestra
Music from the Penguin Cafe



by Chris Jackson USER (177 Reviews)
June 5th, 2006 | 11 replies

Release Date: 1976 | Tracklist

New Pornographers + Sufjan Stevens + Iron & Wine = The Penguin Cafe Orchestra

Although this formula isn't completely true it is pretty damn accurate. Just take Sufjans soothing string arrangements and combine them with the New Pornographers peppy guitar hooks. If you add in a twinkle of Iron & Wine's folky acoustics you've practically got Music From the Penguin Cafe.

For those of you who are not familiar with Sufjan Stevens, Iron & Wine or the New Pornographers I'll make things easier for you. The Penguin Cafe Orchestra consist of many members but no one is really sure how many since the group routinely switch people in and out of certain songs to play there desired instrument. Violins, Cellos, acoustics, electric guitars, basses, drums, and pianos are all used regularly throughout the course of the album. In result you get a mellow, sometimes quirky sound that is heavily influenced by string instruments. Although it may sound impossible The Penguin Cafe Orchestra combine mellow pop music, orchestrations, post-punk, and a tid bit of jazz together to create some truly unique music.

The album goes from gleeful pop tunes to slow, gloomy ballads. Penguin Cafe Single kicks things off and is possibly the most enjoyable song off of the album. Clocking in at around six and a half minutes long the song if comprised of suave violin scales, moody electrics and a mellow yet noticeable bass line. This is probably the most well written track off of the album as it is a subtle pop tune that you would find playing in a garden somewhere in France. Giles Farnaby Dreams is another pop song, but this time it is dominated by a lively harp and a soothing bassline. No lyrics are spoken and the song carries an extremely majestic and fantasy feel.

Aside from these two songs the middle of the album is much more orchestra influenced and low key. Tracks three threw eight range from about two and a half to three minutes long so they are short and snappy which is a huge advantage. Milk is propelled by a deep bassline over some plucking violins creating an ethereal atmosphere. While nothing really happens throughout the song it is fun to listen to simply because of the bass/violin combo. Surface Tension takes a completely different approach, it's a melancholy ballad only featuring string instruments and sophisticated piano chords. Pigtail is a quirky little number focusing on chiming glockenspiels and various echoing effects giving the music a sepulchral vibe. In a Sydney Motel starts off with a sluggish violin scale leading into an operatic vocal performance thus giving the song a depressing and handsome tone. The slight influence of jazz comes in towards the end of the song when the clean electric guitar starts to play accompanying the violas. All of the songs I just mentioned have a heavy opera and orchestra feel to them with a slight twist of pop and jazz. The mood is elegant and suave yet the music can get a little poppy at times.

Unlike most albums released during the seventies, Music from the Penguin Cafe shows off its real strength with its last three songs. The Sound of Someone You Love Whose Gone Away and it Doesn't Matter is an epic eleven minute instrumental. Incorporating elements of jazz, folk, and orchestra-pop The Sound of... is a mellow gem that goes through many instrument changes ranging from twangy acoustics to laid-back cellos. My only beef with the track is that it fails to keep my attention after eight minutes or so. I mean its a very relaxing and gentle tune but the instrument changes are almost to subtle and the song progression is quite slow.

The albums final two tracks Hugebaby and Chattered Fights both venture off into a more space age or even an electronic feel. Hugebaby is a soft song that starts off with a soothing electric guitar line repeated over some psychedelic effects. As the song progresses synth sounds come in and out of the music almost adding an eerie vibe. Chattered Fights almost reaches seven minutes and to be honest is quite a disappointing ending. A violin and cello are played throughout the entire song and the same gloomy mood is presented over the course of the song. Nothing really changes and although it is a depressing tune no jazz or pop elements make their way into the music.

If nothing else Music From the Penguin Cafe will entertain you. The unique mix of string and rock instruments creates a soft and elegant sound rather then a boisterous and loud feel. While the music is truly something different it does have its flaws. You may find yourself dozing off a bit at times, I find myself napping routinely when the string instruments dominate the sound. Aside from this the album shines and is something I'd recommend to anyone who wants some nice, calm folk influenced chamber-pop.

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user ratings (20)

Comments:Add a Comment 
June 5th 2006


Strong review as per usual. More casual than normal, but good nonetheless.
And this seems to be at once something I;d enjoy and hate.I'll download a track or two I suppose.

June 5th 2006


Album Rating: 3.5

Strange. Whenever I clicked on the "Browse" button to upload the cover art a warning screen popped up.

June 5th 2006


This albums dangerous.

June 5th 2006


Good review.

June 5th 2006


Album Rating: 3.5

That's true, but I don't think it's that dangerous.

June 5th 2006


The opening line makes me want to get this

June 10th 2006


Nice. Cool review. Like the band name too.

Staff Reviewer
June 10th 2006


Oh man, I must hear this somehow. Very well done review.

December 18th 2010


Never heard them.

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January 30th 2013


Album Rating: 3.5


April 20th 2014


It's a fact that any album with penguins on the cover is a mind blower.

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