What does that song mean?

Penguin Pete’s Obligatory Penguin Cafe Orchestra Post

Posted Dec 30th 2023, 18:53 by Penguin Pete

Whee, here we are with our year’s-end post at Lyric Interpretations, ready to rock on into 2024. And it’s time once again for me to dig up a band I’m sure most of you haven’t heard of, but will recognize because their music is everywhere. But first, something I have to get out of the way:

Why Am I Called “Penguin Pete”?

This is Tux, the Linux penguin mascot. Linux is a free and open source operating system which is designed after classic Unix philosophies. It is far more commonly found in the industrial and business sector than in the home, albeit it makes an excellent personal system if you pet it right. Anyway, I’m a computer nerd and became the resident Linux/Unix expert at tech jobs and places like the banking sector where I used to work the ol’ 9-5. Later I started a Linux blog and made my first mark in the tech sphere before branching out into other topics (these days, same blog, now about eCommerce in general). Aaaaand, with my surname of Trbovich, which honestly looks like a tough turn in a game of Scrabble, I find it easier to let people call me a nickname rather than strain their lips around Cyrillic consonant huddles.

So it bears repeating once in a while that I have nothing to do with Penguin Cafe Orchestra; they’re from a different floe. Also not to be confused with the UK children’s book character, a few hockey team mascots, or the shaved ice vendor. Dang, what’s it take to stake out personal branding on this crazy Internet?

Now back to our program…

The Sublime Chamber Music of Penguin Cafe Orchestra

Let’s just pitch you into a random track selected purely for its whimsy. “The Sound Of Someone You Love Who's Going Away And It Doesn't Matter” is a nice introduction to the group, establishing many trademarks you’ll see throughout your discography tour, particularly cover art with naked humans wearing penguin head masks. Their works of chamber music veer around between the styles of Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Alan Parsons, and several cinematic composers. This piece is atypically long, however – relax, they’re not one of those “every track is 20 minutes” bands.

You will find the cover art on all Penguin Cafe Orchestra albums have these unique illustrations, in different styles but always the same theme of penguin-headed people in various social settings, sometimes with an actual penguin moseying through just to sharpen the irony. These charming scenes combine weirdness with familiarity, which perfectly captures the spirit of the group. The illustrations are by artist Emily Young, who has been called “Britain's greatest living stone sculptor” – though obviously she dabbles in other mediums, or else the shipping cost for albums would be outrageous.

Now here’s a sight, performing “Wheels Within Wheels” in NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” series. Are we classy yet? This piece is a bit more typical of Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s core style, folk-ish and indie-ish, and very theatrical. You’ll find this style all over their album Signs of Life., which I’d vouch for a best-of-discography nomination. Here’s the track “Bean Fields” from that album:

Now we have a rousing folk symphony, very nearly a country hoedown. Still, quite approachable for new listeners. In fact, you’re likely following along thinking this music is starting to sound eerily familiar, but can’t place it. Here’s one Penguin Cafe Orchestra piece you might recognize:

Soundtrack Works of Penguin Cafe Orchestra

That’s “Telephone & Rubber Band,” from their debut album, so named because it features tones from the UK telephone service on a tape loop backed by… bass notes twanged on a rubber band. Yes, when they said they could play any stringed instrument, they weren’t kidding. You’ll recognize this piece from the trailer to 1988’s Talk Radio, or perhaps the theme to the 2020 British drama series It’s a Sin. But their most famous piece is back there on the Signs of Life album.

“Perpetuum Mobile” is a piece that has found soundtrack play in the films The Handmaid's Tale (2017), Mary and Max (2009), and Slim Susie (2003), as well as many commercials for the likes of Hewlett-Packard.

Penguin Cafe Orchestra was largely the work of Simon Jeffes, a wide-ranging multi-instrumentalist who maintained the group in various forms from a string quartet to full orchestra. Jeffes passed away in 1997 and the group dissolved, but his son, Arthur Jeffes, has carried on his work with a second generation band simply called “Penguin Cafe.”

You’ve been an Avant-Pop fan all this time and didn’t know it!

When looking up this group, I noticed that Wikipedia categorizes this square-peg of a band into the conveniently multiform hole that is “avant-pop.” In other words, popular music with new, challenging elements. Maybe it’s a fancy way of saying “progressive pop”? Anyway, the listing there for Avant Pop bands includes Beach Boys, David Bowie, Depeche Mode, Devo, Brian Eno, Genesis, Talking Heads, Velvet Underground, and just about every art-pop act that we music bloggers perpetually rave about.

So we leave you teeming masses for another year, to rejoin in 2024. Hopefully you find the space and peace to chill with this music and take some time to mend frayed nerves after these past several years of what the Chinese call “interesting times.”



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