For most of its existence, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra didn’t much resemble an orchestra. They sounded more like the house band at a bacchanal in an imagined, druidic British past, and no matter how much jazz and classical and African music they folded into their sound, listening to songs like “Air à Danser” and “Pythagoras’s Trousers” still felt like attending a party where everyone knew how to play an instrument. On 1993’s Union Cafe, the final album before leader Simon Jeffes’ death in 1997, the band explored a stately, string-oriented sound better suited to a parlor than a party. Penguin Cafe, the successor led by Jeffes’ son Arthur, has largely continued in this vein while hinting at the folky exuberance of the earlier work. It’s funny that they should drop “orchestra” from their name given how much more they sound like one.

Arthur Jeffes plays a dozen instruments on Penguin Cafe’s new album Rain Before Seven…, not least the balafon, a West African xylophone with a terrifically raspy tone. Yet just as crucial to the record’s sound is Oli Langford, a string arranger with a steady gig supplying violin to the soundtracks of such blockbusters as The Batman, Divergent, and Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. This is a man who knows a thing or two about making music that sounds “cinematic,” and Rain Before Seven… plays like a compilation of the themes that accompany small-town protagonists as they arrive in cities bigger and grander than they ever imagined. This is music written in the language of excitement and adventure, all sawing strings, insistent rhythms, and curious mallets.

All this uplift leaves little room for mystery, psychedelia, or experimentation. Though Jeffes’ balafon and Andy Waterworth’s Eberhard Weber-like bass diddles inject pleasing eccentricity, tricky decisions like the 15/8 beat on “Galahad” barely register beneath the music’s twinkling cheerfulness. Even some interesting moments are defused by the album’s relentlessness, as when a crisp-sounding drum machine on “Find Your Feet” is immediately subsumed into a wall of strings cranking out a tried-and-true pop chord progression. With strings occupying nearly every inch of available space, there’s little sense of spontaneity or camaraderie between the players. The PCO had a way of convincing you their music sprung spontaneously from their heads, even when it was rigorously composed; Penguin Cafe songs sound like the product of endless rehearsal, a formality less conducive to the experimentation that led to serendipitous wonders like “Telephone and Rubber Band.”

Jeffes is not shy about labeling this music “optimistic,” and a Bandcamp statement equates the album’s tone with the English “national character,” the stoicism and perseverance the Brits are reputed to show in the face of a crisis—such as the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Jeffes found himself on lockdown in hard-hit Italy. The album’s lush but low-key tenor suggests a relief that collaborative big-band music like this can exist after the pandemic made it risky for musicians even to share a room. Rain Before Seven… is designed to feel hopeful and positive, reassuring rather than challenging: music for the world that should or could be, rather than the grim reality. But it’s ultimately a vision of a heaven where nothing much happens.

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Penguin Cafe: Rain Before Seven…