Penguin Cafe: The Imperfect Sea
Erased Tapes

The Imperfect Sea is the second album from Penguin Cafe, which Arthur Jeffes established in 2009 to perform the much-admired music of his father Simon, whose 1997 death brought the celebrated Penguin Cafe Orchestra to a close. Eight years on from its founding, Penguin Cafe has developed into a legitimate artistic entity in its own right, one that builds on the earlier group's orchestral pop with additional instruments and influences. Under Arthur's guiding hand, Penguin Cafe enriches its presentation with strings, piano, harmonium, ukulele, celesta, kalimba, and more, and on this album pairs originals with Kraftwerk (“Franz Schubert”) and Simian Mobile Disco (“Wheels Within Wheels”) covers and a piano-centric re-work of Simon Jeffes' “Now Nothing.”

Among the distinguishing qualities of The Imperfect Sea is its all-acoustic sound; in Arthur's own words, “The idea was to create a musical world that would feel familiar to an audience more used to dance records but stay true to our own values. So we replaced electronic layers with real instruments: pads with real string sections, synths with heavily effected pianos, and atmospheric analogue drones with real feedback loops ringing through a stone and a piano soundboard.” In a typical Penguin Cafe arrangement, layers of keyboards, strings, and percussion are woven into intricate wholes whose parts interlock like cogs in a machine. Adding to the sound produced by the group's string players, the City of Prague Philharmonic's strings appear on two pieces.

The opening pieces are arguably the album's best, especially when both are elevated by the collective's kinetic propulsion and the orchestral quality its string players bring to the material. Buoyed by a breezy, motorik groove and a swinging double bass pulse, “Ricercar” starts things off splendidly with generous doses of percussion adding rhythmic colour and force to a performance that's reinforced by a multi-tiered combination of piano and strings. As strong is “Cantorum,” which is similarly driven by insistently sawing strings and a forcefully swinging feel. As a bright ping accents the song in exactly the right places, the composition proves a beautiful showcase for the group's string section, with violinists Darren Berry and Oli Langford, violist Vincent Greene, and cellist Rebecca Waterworth voicing Jeffes' eloquent melodies with grace and sensitivity.

As beneficial to the set-list as contrast is, the momentum that's so appealingly generated by the opening pair diminishes in the tracks immediately following. Fundamentally an ambient-drone meditation, “Control 1 (Interlude)” is as elaborate in its arrangement as the first two yet static, and while wonderfully realized is at seven minutes probably twice as long as this particular interlude should be. “Franz Schubert” receives a credible makeover that clothes Kraftwerk's classic in Penguin Cafe garb. Without sacrificing any of the original's charm, the cover sparkles in an acoustic arrangement that sees Arthur's dulcitone, celesta, and harmonium playing sweetened by strings and percussion. Thankfully, the momentum revives with the arrival of “Protection,” a beautiful example of the group's command of a rustic pastoral-folk style, and reasserts itself when “Wheels Within Wheels” brings the album to a dramatic close three songs later.

The twelve-year gap separating the end of the original outfit and the founding of the new one works in Arthur's favour: with enough time having elapsed between them, the likelihood of listeners comparing the groups' respective sounds is modest at best, yet at the same time the brand recognition of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra remains so strong it can't help but benefit the updated version. That being said, there's nothing about The Imperfect Sea that suggests Arthur and company are trading off the association; while it might itself be imperfect, the nine-song collection speaks credibly on behalf of the new model.

August 2017