When Australian composer Rae Howell and visual artist Jon Cohrs met at the Banff Centre, in Canada, in 2006, I don’t know what happened and how, but the spark that ignited their collaboration was soon lost in a haze of data, bits and megabytes. The beats that were generated fell into their natural place on the resulting record, as the flow continued across continents and years. Eight, to be precise. Penguins is a study in pulsating electronic, that type that lives through the imaginary, imperfect strings of organic (the percussive instruments) and the discrete charm of synthetic sound. The resulting balance is a delicate texture suspended between a colorful rendition of the rigors of contemporary music (Steve Reich, Terry Riley) and ambient pop (Stereolab, above all), that somehow manages to retain a playful tone, slightly clouded by a few melancholic lines.
There are elements of acousmatic sound lightly changing into vague reminiscences of musique concrète. But in the end, what really matters is that, notwithstanding the noble roots of the pieces, this is accessible and likable music that remains one step ahead of accessibility and predictability. “Vegislop”, “Just a Tree”, “Crooked” and “Stretched Out”, for instance, with their diluted pace and depth, appear to be looking for a voice. Beth Orton, Beth Gibbons or Sophie Barker would almost certainly provide the elegant contribution these tunes need to turn into a wider musical spectrum. But, for now, they proudly live on their own.
Howell’s work behind the marimba and the vibraphone, combined with Cohr’s out-of-the-box approach and electronic administration, is an effortless piece of art. One that, despite its long gestation, appears spontaneous and completely devoid of apriority and astuteness. It occupies the highest sphere of naivety with its simple logic. It grows and stays, and it makes up for its lack of derring-do with an abundance of talent. Rae Howell and Jon Cohrs know what they do, but as long as they will keep their minds free, they will always be on the verge of spawning a little gem. For now, we will be more than happy with what Penguins has got to deliver.