Penguin Cafe Orchestra remained stubbornly difficult to categorize to the very end, which sadly came with the death of co-founding member Simon Jeffes in 1997. A brain tumour brought about the sudden and tragic close to a quarter-century of polished, genuinely unique avant-pop.
Union Cafe was PCO's last studio album. Released in 1993, it's a sad, touching listen in retrospect. Cellist Helen Liebmann — Jeffes' partner since the band's inception — delivers a moving performance that has a lot to do with that. It's a bit like thumbing through an old photo album.
PCO's work often had a strongly cinematic feel, as "Vega" demonstrates. Indeed, they've been featured in numerous film projects, including Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, John Hughes' She's Having a Baby and Jared Hess's Napoleon Dynamite.
"Another One From Porlock," with its hypnotic strings and commanding piano, is an effective reminder of how uniquely evocative PCO's work could be. They weren't all winners (even this album has one or two low points), but when they worked they were inspired.
Because Brian Eno was an early supporter of the band, listeners are sometimes turned onto PCO expecting a unique take on ambient music. You won't find that here. These are road trip songs for sophisticates, lovingly crafted and sure to please fans of Lord Byron and Mary Webb.
This album is out of step with modern music of virtually every style, and that is entirely the point. (Erased Tapes)