You can always tell when The Penguin Party are gearing up for a new album. Lead Penguin, Dave Milligan, locks himself away in his musical lab in Rayleigh, Essex, reappearing in the real world only if there’s a fresh delivery of Hawaiian shirts, a new release from Andy Partridge or a panicked midnight phone call from bassist Gareth Hall. “Dave, I’m outside the Clacton Travelodge. Not quite sure how I got here, but… any chance you can pop over and bring me some trousers.”
Much has changed since Milligan delivered the PP’s debut album, See Thru Songs, in 2008. Back then, the band was more or less a solo project and showcase for his sprightly-but-caustic post-punk singalongs. Live dates were rare, but in the following months, Milligan began to fashion a bona fide PP band, including his son, Jake (guitars) and Gareth Hall (bass). It was this harder, sweatier version that released 2011’s Sex Furniture Warehouse, an almost conceptual collection of tunes that bounced around in the melodic space between Squeeze, XTC and Ian Dury.
Four years on and The Penguin Party has grown into a settled five-piece, with Milligan, Milligan Jr. and Hall, joined by Jan Black on keyboards and Johnny Holburn on drums. Honed and zhuzhed-up by regular live shows – including a series of unforgettable nights at their spiritual home, The Railway Hotel in Southend – Penguin Mark III has just delivered album number three, Mershelek.
Like those first two albums, it’s a satisfyingly curious collection of skewed rock gems – Get Rich Or Try Dying could be a Canvey Island Springsteen after a couple of lagers. But Milligan has added a prog-like dexterity to tunes like My Big Bad Self that provides a beautifully balanced, melancholic counterpoint to the end-of-the-pier cheekiness of Let’s Go Down To The Seaside.
Elsewhere, you’ll find scuffed glam harmonies (shades of 70s pin-ups, Sweet, on the opening I Wanna Be A Cult), haunting ELO strings (The Anti Russell Brand) and Pete Townshend’s off-kilter hooks (She’s On Drugs), all slapped about by Milligan and Hall’s wry, restless lyrics.
Some might call it Penguin Party’s grown-up album, but adulthood has neither dulled the band’s sharp edges nor stifled their desire to cock a snoot at the absurdities of modern life and modern love. As Milligan sings on The Anti Russell Brand:
“The years went by; it seems that I'd been taking quiet naps
And I’d been sleepwalking oblivious thru my family’s collapse
Those nights alone at my computer left the family unmanned
And so she left me for a bloke who acted just like Russell Brand.”
Mershelek is an Indonesian word meaning: ‘to tease someone by poking them with a finger’.
You can’t help but feel that some bloke in Indonesia came up with that word after listening to The Penguin Party.
Proper songs. Proper tunes.
Making music we want to hear.
We play it, you'll hum it!
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