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Today’s wild and wacky theme is “bands that call themselves orchestras, but really aren’t.” ‘Nuff said. Cue the debate about what qualifies as an orchestra.

Hidden Orchestra

There is a fine line between certain types of jazz music and trip-hop, and apparently music critics have decided to call that line “nu-jazz”. Hidden Orchestra falls squarely in that category, mixing jazz elements with the downtempo, electronic, “urban” feeling of trip-hop while not quite strictly qualifying as either. I’ve listened to both of their albums, Night Walks and Archipelago, and I recommend both. Song likes Antiphon and Overture take you on a zoned-out ride through chillville. I feel that every element in the songs brings something “necessary,” rather than being superfluous. Even the busier, not-so-downtempo tracks like Flight have that quality. Hidden Orchestra is an all-around great listen for anyone who enjoys that jazzy-ish electronic sound.

Submotion Orchestra

These guys are arguably in the same “school” as Hidden Orchestra, but their sound is rather different. I get a much larger dose of the jazzyness and a smaller does of the downtempo, chillout feeling than I would from the more “trip-hop”-type bands. They’ve got a very sultry female lead vocalist, and some of their tracks such as Finest Hour have a downright James Bond mood to them. Other tracks like Time Will Wait swing much more strongly in the electronic direction, but either way they go, Submotion Orchestra always maintains a very smooth groove about them. I don’t have a favorite album so far. I’ve listened to both Alium and Finest Hour so far, and I’d say they both carry the same mood and have equally diverse track selections.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

How to describe this group… psychedelic rock; last.fm throws out “lo-fi,” I agree with that; naked chick on their album covers — definitely a different sound not just from the first two in this article, but from many other indie bands I’ve heard. Then again, I haven’t spent much time listening to this hippie nonsense, so it could be more common than I’ve noticed. At any rate, I first heard them via So Good at Being in Trouble, which is a nice groovy rock song with an infectious chorus. They recently released a new album, Multi-Love, that I’ve really enjoyed from the titular track onward. I like music that features prominent, audible bass-playing. I also like music with engaging, expressive drumwork. Along with the haunting vocals of the lead singer, I feel Unknown Mortal Orchestra has all of those qualities. I’ll recommend one last song: Can’t Keep Checking My Phone. All things considered, these guys are a lot of fun and definitely worth a listen.

Penguin Cafe Orchestra

I didn’t know what I was going to get with a “penguin cafe orchestra,” but I was pleasantly surprised. They bring a more refined (not to suggest that being refined automatically means being superior) version of the sound and mood evoked by Balmorhea, which I described in September: that folky-but-neoclassical aesthetic. They’re most well-known for Perpetuum Mobile, which is certainly a nice song that really takes flight quickly and keeps the momentum going throughout. However, I think the popularity of that song drowns out many other good songs by the group. I’m still working my way through their sizable discography, but I really enjoyed Discover America, an instrumental medley of American folk songs off Union Cafe. I also like their occasional electronic forays such as Pythagoras on the Line. But I suppose I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also enjoy their reprise of Perpetuum Mobile in bagpipe form on their song Organum.

The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble

I’m going to go completely left field with this one: this group doesn’t call themselves an orchestra, and in fact they are exactly what they say they are. However, I ran into them around the time I found Hidden Orchestra, and I couldn’t help but mention them because I really like what I’ve heard from them so far. They’re yet another merging of jazz and downtempo electronica, and yet another quite unique merging at that. They’ve got jazzy songs like Parallel Corners and more electronic-y songs like Lobby. I’m not totally on board with the “darkjazz” label, because a lot of their songs don’t appear uniquely grimey/downtempo/”dark”, but they do have some tracks on that order, such as Vegas. On the whole, I haven’t heard a single song by them that didn’t qualify as “bitchin'”. They really hit the spot.

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