Pegging Penguin Cafe Orchestra's sound has always proved problematic; imagine Cluster's toy melodies channeled through the Bonzo Dog Band with a hint of the Art Bears' high-mindedness, and you've at least got a point of reference. The brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Simon Jeffes, Penguin Cafe's debut was released under the imprimatur of executive producer Brian Eno, who had taken the onus of bringing like-minded minimalists (Harold Budd, Cluster, Jon Hassell) to light. But where the work of those artists demanded to be taken seriously, Jeffes and company almost defy you to take their music seriously. "Penguin Cafe Single" and "In a Sydney Motel" are playful pieces constructed to sound nonmusical, aided by Jeffes' eclectic instrumentation (e.g., the ukelele), which effectively undermines the serious sounds of cello and violin. It's not all light fare; "Surface Tension" sounds like Eno at his most morose and "Coronation" could have come from the ice queen herself, Nico. If there's a knock on Music From the Penguin Cafe (and from the vantage point of their second album, there is), it's that Jeffes merely teases listeners with his charm. On the second side (for CD owners, that's the last three songs), the Penguin Cafe Orchestra traverse artier terrain, with little of their original humor (although "Chartered Flight" does reuse themes from the first side in an effort to come across warmly). As a result, Music From the Penguin Cafe tugs from two very different directions: the avant-garde and the innocent. Listeners are trained to save room for the sweet stuff at the end; by placing it at the beginning, most listeners won't have the appetite for the heavy courses that follow. Mind you, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra are no laughing matter, but heavy artists abound, and musicians with a sense of humor about their art are cherished oddities. Music From the Penguin Cafe shows restraint, their eponymous second album is pure indulgence; reward yourself with their second album first and purchase their first album second. Note that, like Harold Budd's debut, this material was recorded in part in 1974 (with roughly half of the material dating from 1976), but the span in time has little bearing on the sound of the music.
AllMusic Review by Dave Connolly