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.