Penguin Café is a legacy band. Such a thing is not normal, but the namesake band, Penguin Café Orchestra, was not normal. They were left-of-center. They started as compatriots of Brian Eno’s weird world, and branched off from there, releasing five studio albums from 1976 to 1993. Their music is hard to pin down, but a good description would include all of these terms and quite a few more: folk, jazz, world, minimal, classical, meandering, and quirky. The Penguin Café Orchestra was started by Simon Jeffes in 1972, and his son Arthur started Penguin Café in 2009, playing many Penguin Café Orchestra songs live, yet penning original songs as well. The Imperfect Sea is the third release of Penguin Café, and it sees the band crawling from out of the shadow of its namesake, Penguin Café Orchestra.
The first release from Arthur Jeffes’ Penguin Café, A Matter of Life, was a facsimile of his father’s work. It meandered and moved just like the original group, but something was missing. It was pleasant and occasionally perky, but it just wasn’t as fun. It was a guy telling his dad’s old jokes. They’re a little funny, but the cultural references were dead. Their second release, The Red Book, repeated this approach and was the worse for it. It abounded with bouncy instrumentals, but it all read as false.
The Imperfect Sea is a step away from Penguin Café Orchestra and towards something of Penguin Cafe’s own. The bouncy opening track, “Ricercar”, does come in sounding similar to the old, but it has more muscle, more confidence than before. The real change shows itself in the second track, “Cantorum”. The song comes in slow and droney and rides the beat for a minute. Then a melodic line takes over, quickly followed by a droned out string instrument dominating the mix. Then it all drops out, and the drone comes back even harder. The Penguin Café is working with a modern classical palette of sound here, and it suits them well.
The band flirts with minimal compositions throughout much of the rest of the album as well. “Control 1 (Interlude)” is so long and drawn out, it sounds like Johann Johansson’s soundtrack work for thriller films. A few notes are plucked here and there, but mostly we’re just listening to a low note hang. “Rescue” is another track that toys with drone, but this one blooms into a full-out cinematic drama piece right down the middle of the track. Elsewhere, “Half-Certainty” is barely a wisp, with little outside some tinny percussion and what sounds like an improvised melodica, and that’s about all it offers.
For being a group that seems to be in transition, it makes sense that the album has a multitude of cover songs. One of them, “Now Nothing (Rock Music)” is a re-working of a Penguin Café Orchestra solo piano piece. It’s a pleasant enough piece, but this reviewer gets an overwhelming feeling that the song was included to appeal to fans of the original group. Of note are the two re-workings of electronic songs: “Franz Schubert” by Kraftwerk and “Wheels Within Wheels” by Simian Mobile Disco. They do not drastically alter from the originals but are satisfying detours for an acoustic group to tackle.
The title, The Imperfect Sea, comes from a phrase of Arthur’s father, Simon Jeffes. It’s a beautiful phrase in itself, seeing as the whole world in imperfect, so we better get used to it. As much at that title could refer to just about anything, it does fit this album quite well. It’s a growth record, and it shows Penguin Café coming into their own. It’s a beginning, but it’s imperfect.