Well what can one say. Penguin Café Orchestra are a musical smile! Taking repetition, minimalism and excellent musicianship out of the high reflective, internalised experience of, for example, Philip Glass, this places such music under a warm sun, a beach umbrella, a brightly coloured fruit and punch cocktail in hand, where the days are filled with splendour and playful happiness. The musicians who comprised the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra cohered around composer and musician Simon Jeffes. Since Jeffes death the music still goes on
How can you not smile at music with such absurd titles as `Pythagoras’ Trousers’ and `The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas’ ? This isn’t the sort of music that I normally fill my days with, preferring deep intense reflective musical journeys, but sometimes one just has to get one’s face out of the numinous and giggle at musical high spirits!
Difficult to categorise this music – Amazon have it filed under Rock, I’ve also seen it categorised as New Age – 2 genres which would seem to be diametrically opposed really!
IMO it is neither; perhaps a new category Musical DaDa Or Music of The Absurd, to steal categories from Art and Theatre. This music is deliciously silly, a stream of bubbles and celebratory balloons
Telephone and Rubber Band and Cutting Branches For a Temporary Shelter are particularly broad smile inducing! Numbers 1-4 is the closest the Penguins come to `blue’ – sweet and lyrical – like watching the sun set while you know that as soon as that happens someone is going to light a fire and start waving sparklers to announce a mellow party. And those dancing fleas are pretty laid back!
I’m looking at the humble rubber band with a new respect, and bow down to the masterful rubber band virtuoso of Penguin Café Orchestra. Begone pale violin and cello. Classical pieces will henceforth be scored for rubber band.
This is a marvellously seductive album, which doesn’t immediately grab the listener (well this listener) by the throat, but silkily slides into the mind, nagging and teasing, until it itches at the ears and heart, insistently, to be played again. Of course, this album may indeed have contained Recent Songs on its release in 1979, now, they must almost be ready for retitling as Songs From Long Ago!
The track which grabbed me most immediately was the plangent The Window, redolent with references to the mystical heart, and the mysteriousness of love, fleshly and divine – Rumi a strong influence. The combination of much Christian reference ‘The Host’, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ and rose references within that context, plus the strange haunting violin of Raffi Hakopian, hinting at another tradition from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, provides a deep texture, the music and the lyrics setting against each other, almost like counterpoint.
This is a subtle and rewarding album, musically and lyrically. Cohen employs a mariachi band on one long track, The Ballad of The Absent Mare. On other tracks there’s use of Oud, Accordion, Sax, Cello and Horns as well as keyboards and Cohen’s guitar. I’ve described it as `unsettling’ because, particularly on the tracks which explore the connections and the disconnections between fleshly love and divine love the pulls of heaven and earth are mirrored by music which sets up a sense of yearning for something out of reach – that perfection of union and merging with the beloved, however the beloved is perceived. Hakopian’s heartful, soulful, longing for home violin is particularly well in evidence on these tracks – The Guests, The Window, The Traitor, The Gypsy’s Wife.
Cohen uses his voice very lyrically, colouring the songs – again, often to unsettling results. His voice is most tender, most lyrical and sweet on The Traitor, hinting at the English Folk Music tradition by way of a nod at Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot, but the lyrics are darkly on the edge of humour, very dark indeed `
keep my body here to lie upon, you can move it up and down and when I’m sleeping run some wire through that Rose and wind the Swan.
A wonderful album bringing together darkness and light. Full of dynamic oppositions.
I’ve been having a little bit of a revisit of Cohen’s work.
This album, beautifully enhanced by the backing vocals (and indeed production) of Sharon Robinson, has a smoky, smooth jazz, torch song feel.
The voice has dropped and cracked with age, and some of the songs almost sprechsung in delivery, but Cohen’s lyrics are always worth focusing on. The musicality is provided by Robinson’s mellifluous, floated backing vocals, often slightly on the off-beat, setting up interesting tensions – most notably on the achingly beautiful, textured Alexandra Leaving – which seems to contain many possible meanings within it.
I also really loved the connected songs, A Thousand Kisses Deep (I’m back on Boogie St) and the penultimate track, Boogie St – lines, and indeed, musical threads echo between the two. Religious imagery and the juxtaposition of sexual connection and connection to something transcendent and immaterial continues to twine through these songs, Cohen’s deep engagement with the mysteriousness of embodiment, a life which is matter and spirit.
Instrumentally, I found this less engaging than a much earlier album Recent Songs where Cohen used many instruments from different traditions, and styles of playing, to produce a tapestry of sounds; this album relying more on Sharon Robinson: ‘All tracks arranged programmed and performed by Sharon Robinson’ – so the use of synthesiser keyboards misses something wild, dynamic, untamed which was provided by the diversity of musicianship on the previous mentioned album. Her vocals though, are gorgeous
However – as a small, critical aside, in trying to find a Youtube video to allow the playing of Alexandra Leaving, I found several covers of the song by other artists. To a woman and man they all seemed to find the need to embellish with vocal frills and furbelows, or over emote – and this includes Robinson herself, who now sings this as a solo in Cohen’s live concerts, since clearly the higher notes are now beyond him. What i find intriguing is that no chanteuse has understood that the complexity of the lyrics, part taken from, part freeflow inspired from Cavafy’s poem The God Abandons Anthony, needs the musical simplicity and dispassion Cohen himself allows.
Sure his voice is not the most beauteous of instruments and curiously it is exactly the smoky lived in damaged harshness of it that work so stunningly with the tenderness and violence of his lyrics. Sorry, other singers, but you seem to press your interpretations on too much, trying to create a thing which shows off your vocal beauty, or lets us see your suffering. Cohen’s curious stoicism IS the point that lifts this above the mundane song of the end of a love affair, and contains the conflicts.
Here is the Cavafy poem which inspired this
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear an invisible procession going by with exquisite music, voices, don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now, work gone wrong, your plans all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly. As one long prepared, and graced with courage, say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving. Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say it was a dream, your ears deceived you: don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these. As one long prepared, and graced with courage, as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city, go firmly to the window and listen with deep emotion, but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward; listen—your final delectation—to the voices, to the exquisite music of that strange procession, and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
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