Penguin Cafe Orchestra – “The Sound of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away And It Doesn’t Matter” (1976)
Penguin Cafe Orchestra sadly seem to be an anomaly, from some unknown space between prog, the avant-garde, neo-chamber music, proto-post-punk (think Essendon Airport or Durrutti Column) and even RiO. The later work has achieved some popularity, but their first album remains seemingly unheralded. To my ears, it is perhaps their best, or at least purest, less cute than later work, more emotionally direct. The guitar figuring here has a feeling not unlike something from ‘Chelsea Girls,’ but the strings and the electric piano add a slightly off-kilter warmth that is unique. This music could very easily have been recorded today, in the best possible sense: based in no fads or even prevailing styles, it stands apart from its time or origin. [Penguin Cafe Orchestra are featured in several mixes at Musicophilia.] Update: wrong audio stream when first published, now corrected. Thanks!
Robert Schumann – String Quartet A Major, O41 N03 “Adagio Motto” (1842)
I’ve heard Schumann described as “weepy,” and I guess this piece wouldn’t dissuade anyone who saw that as a pejorative. But I find the interplay of this chamber orchestra considerably more emotionally diverse than mere maudlin. On the whole, melancholy is central; but there are moments of elevation, joy, expectation, perhaps hints of anger, and the piece shifts subtly and nimbly between them in a way that rings true and avoids sentimentalism.
Flatt & Scruggs – “We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart” (1949)
I don’t know much about bluegrass and country music–but I know I tend toward the pre-electric forms that emphasis vocal harmony. This track from Flatt & Scruggs has always stuck with me. It has the sweetness and simplicity of earlier Carter Family tracks, wonderful banjo playing, and a nice bit of fiddle.
Karen Dalton – “Katie Cruel” (1971)
For me, Karen Dalton is at her best when she’s at her most spare, and this might be my favorite: jittery banjo, bittersweet voice, and aching fiddle, knitting a tale of loss and regret. This is where she transcends “folk revival” or “singer-songwriter” (or “Billie Holiday of folk music” comparisons) and simply creates pure American music, out of time, beyond any single persona. [Karen Dalton is featured in a wide-ranging ‘Le Tour du Monde’ mix at Musicophilia.]