Album review

Pram : Dark Island

Pram : Dark IslandThere is something sinister about Pram, the band. The name should go hand in hand with jolly tunes and wide-eyed innocence. It doesn't. The music is possessed by an eerie resonance. The same uneasiness lurks in Victorian dolls found in curiosity shops. The feeling works on the same level as the dramatic irony summoned up by children singing nursery rhymes when the forces of Satan are about to ascend. Clowns and thatched cottages hail from the same nest of evil. Or is that just me?
    Pram make music to capture this shadowy and saturnine imagery. Their stock-in-trade is a minimalist blend of low-tech loops and skilled 'live' musicianship - served chilled. The effect is to construct a whole that can best be described as dark retro-futurism. Pretentious? Moi?
    This Brummie band work with an agreeable nod to the disfigured jazz of Henry Cow, the cinematic sensibility of Ennio Morricone and the distant vibe of Tortoise. Surprisingly, unlike musical and geographic bedfellows Plone and Broadcast who serve up similar (if slightly more straightforward) slices of eclectic electronica, Pram are not on the Warp roster of artists. The relatively high profile of this label might bring about a greater awareness and wider availability of Pram music. But in the meantime, if you can get hold of a copy, grab yourself a bucket of popcorn, draw the curtains, dim the lights and enjoy the delightfully unsettling experience that is Dark Island.

Throughout, fragmented samples are textured with an assortment of toy-box instruments, seemingly low-tech analogue electronics, trumpet, vibes, drums, bass and guitar. This enchanting scatter-gun approach to instrumentation is complemented by the almost childlike but nonetheless glacial voice of Pram mainstay, Rosie Cuckston. The result is strangely compelling.
    Album opener, the instrumental Track Of The Cat is real Plone territory. It's a tune you can hum; the trumpet is pure spaghetti western and the guitar twang underscores the Morricone influence. But from here on it starts to feel a bit less comfortable.
    Penny Arcade has a pulsing analogue rhythm track, more spaghetti western trumpet and the first taste of Cuckston's forlorn vocals. John Shuttleworth fans may recognise the Casio 'fun rhythm' tootling away in the background. However, the fun seems to be increasingly permeated, and eventually overrun by the haunted atmosphere.
    Paper Hats fuses this strangeness with latin beats. But this is a South American feel stripped of the heat and passion. I'd put this down to there not being much sun in Birmingham - but I suspect other influences are at work . . .

Peepshow captures the musical essence of a Tom Waits whisky soaked narrative. Human degradation and desperation are laid bare in this seedy soundscape, while Sirocco ushers in a touch of levity reminiscent of a David Holmes' score.
    And, as if by magic, The Archivist, for reasons best known to my subconscious, conjures up images of cartoon adventurer Mr Benn - only this time Festive Road becomes host to a freak show performance. As this track progresses the music deteriorates into a found sound exploration, becoming a delightfully unsettling but compulsive distortion of the main theme.
    Leeward sounds like a sinister re-work of that perennial late-night Radio 4 closer, Sailing By. A potentially sweet tune upset by accidental visions of a nightmarish journey's end; Number 6 foiled again in his attempt to escape the tyranny of The Village.

As the album slips into final track Distant Islands you become aware that a happy resolution for this strange journey is not going to be offered. The album just disappears before your very ears and you are left feeling somewhat perplexed but wanting to hear more.
    Dark Island is by turns unsettling and mellow, minimalist and complex. The whole possesses a disfigured beauty and as such makes for compelling, if at times slightly uncomfortable listening.

:: Tom Alford

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