This two-disc live program of music spanning the history of the group from the early 1970s to the early 1990s is remarkable not only for the quality of the music, but for the absolute hush of the audience; there's not a cough or a clap out of them. We are thus left free from distraction to enjoy PCO's unique combination of old-time parlor stylings, park bandstand music, folk, and classical. Emotionally, the mélange adds up to a wistful yet hopeful nostalgia. Intellectually, it's fascinating to watch the kaleidoscopic interplay of elements, such as the minimalist factor that enters the mix in "Numbers 1-4" with its Glass-like repeated gallop.
The music is all instrumental (it really is all small orchestra), but the possible sameness of the sound is broken up by clever arrangements and a little variation in the instruments, as with the occasional harmonium and the ukulele featured on the all-out hoe-down "Beanfields" (not to mention the telephonesounds on "Telephone and Rubber Band"). The instruments are unfortunately pushed too far back in the sound-space, as an effect rather like a soft-focus in a movie flashback. This may have been composer/producer Simon Jeffes' intent, but it doesn't serve the music well.
Half the fun of listening to PCO is trying to pin down the allusions and influences, the funniest being the riff from "La Bamba" played on the cuatro by Jeffes in "Giles Farnaby's Dream." However, the eclecticism makes it hard to define the market who will appreciate this music. If you like Cafe Noir, 81/2 Souvenirs, or Squirrel Nut Zippers, there's a pretty good chance you'll like this, too. But remember that Penguin Cafe Orchestra was there first.