Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Penguin Cafe Orchestra

  • Penguin Cafe Orchestra [Editions EG, 1981] A-
  • The Penguin Cafe Orchestra Mini Album [Editions EG EP, 1983] B
  • Broadcasting From Home [Editions EG, 1984] B+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Penguin Cafe Orchestra [Editions EG, 1981]
Not since Another Green World has ambient music sounded this rich. The big difference is that the instruments are mostly acoustic--Simon Jeffes does count electronic organ and ring modulator among his fourteen, but he runs more toward ukelele and pennywhistle, and the ensemble includes violin, cello, and oboe. The tempos are poky, the playing tender, impulsive, and a bit ragged, and the mood nostalgic--although it's my bet that melodies this minimal were unheard of in fin-de-siècle pop. A-

The Penguin Cafe Orchestra Mini Album [Editions EG EP, 1983]
Simon Jeffes outlines a music from everywhere that could easily turn into a music for nowhere: "music which is influenced by the above [classical, rock, jazz, folk] but also by African, Japanese, Venezuelan, Celtic (Scottish and Irish), Cajun, Reggae, and other sources." But where Paul Winter, whose program isn't all that dissimilar, is half pundit and half mooncalf, Jeffes's gentle wit, unmystical posture, and fondness for urban life combat vague-out. Whether he also reaches the "heart of our own time and culture," however, is another matter. His eccentric post-folk orchestrations seem more like escapes to me--into fantasy, into a future with reassuring connections to the past. Which makes this an odd piece of product. "The Penguin Cafe Single" is more useful here than the premature Music From the Penguin Cafe. The two new pieces are simple, charming, and very slight. And the three finest tunes, two in new but hardly definitive live versions, are also available on the nonmini album they put out in 1981, the length of which better suits the leisurely pace of Jeffes's panpop impressionism. B

Broadcasting From Home [Editions EG, 1984]
Marginal differences count for plenty with these subtlety specialists. More emphatic production bespeaks sharper conception--sometimes dramatic, sometimes representational, sometimes self-consciously atmospheric. The music is "better"--and therefore relatively (marginally) conventional. It's lost its incidental aura, and despite the instant appeal of compositions like "Heartwind" and "Music for a Found Harmonium," an edge of charm. B+