I think this is the third record I've reviewed this year where the band is described as a "collective". For the life of me, I have no idea what this means. I hope it isn't anything like the key party where my drunkard uncle met his first wife. Though forged in a fiery moment of kinky fate, the marriage was stormy, brief, and filled with cruel emotional nettles. Basically, if there's one thing I've learned from VH-1, it's that people who form bands should avoid fucking each other. The only other association I have with the word "collective" is the co-op where a couple of my college friends lived where everyone could quote Karl Marx, but no one seemed to be able to clean up their own dishes. From what I can gather Pram are a collective in the sense that people traipse in and out of their records, a loose core defined by promiscuous collaboration. Whatever their utopian origins, Pram consistently make uncompromised music worth letting under your skin.
Pram is a band with no shortage of atmospheric depth. This might explain the constant and yet woefully under reaching comparisons to bands like Portishead. While Portishead do share with Pram an aura of the cinematic, the movies that this music would slip seamlessly under are far less sexy, less accessible, and more unnerving than the mellow stoner melancholy of Beth Gibbon's downer diva drone. Where trip hop seeks out a smoother shade of sorrow, Pram manage to create an environment haunted by slick tremors of shadow.
Rosie Cuckston has a coquettish and unsettling little talon of a voice. If you put a decent set of barrettes on the waterlogged demon girlie from the Ring, it wouldn't surprise me if she sounded like Cuckston. Her voice is introverted, halting, and childlike, a scary basement version of Isobel from Belle and Sebastian. The lyrics remind me of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, perfectly constructed nether realms that seem like Everytown USA and yet they're prone to random outbursts of madness. In "Paper Hats" she sings: "Every year she throws a party for the man she says had / Took her mind away / They both wear paper hats and there's a jelly shaped like a rabbit / On a plate". It's all very matter-of-fact, none of Pram's surreality is couched in the kind of melodramatic bravura of American practitioners of the bizarre, like Marilyn Manson. Cuckold's vocal chops sound most impressive during the polyrhythmic cadence of her delivery. She turns words that, on paper, look sluggishly overdone, into subtle internal rhymes, a zigzagging inflection full of tricks of pace, accent, and emphasis. Imagine Marlene Dietrich scatting effortlessly.
The instrumentals further deepen the soundtrack sensibility, particularly the shoot out at the absinthe coral vibe of "Track of the Cat". "Peepshow" equal parts detective noir and tasteful titty shake, soars with trumpets that lift up your skirt like a sidewalk air vent. "Sirocco" falls flattest with its Zorba the Gunslinger mix of Middle Eastern and spaghetti western influences but deserves credit for ambitiously threading incongruous grooves. Although I thoroughly enjoyed all of the instrumentals, they are by far the weakest tracks on the record, failing to command much attention, a bit too breezy and uneven when placed against the other tracks on Dark Island. Given how solid an effort this is, that's only a minor slight, and really just an observation that all the parts working together are what make Pram a spectacularly engaging group of musicians.
On other Pram records, like North Pole Station, I always felt as if the band had an unspoken policy of passive anarchy -- that everyone was allowed to do their own thing with the hopes that some people would want to work towards something that would end up sounding alright. Frequently, the result was that Rosie's lyrics were encased in complicated, but indifferent, musical surroundings. Dark Island coheres much more cleanly and the music more firmly embraces Cuckston's grainy, off-kilter sketches. "Penny Arcade", a gorgeously detached ballad, swells with reverberating keyboards and a trumpet that taps out a lonely undertow of a beat. "Distant Islands" puts Cuckston's petal plucking whimsical vocals over an ocean-bottomed circus in a song about the estrangement caused by language. "Goodbye" is straight-up lament, backgrounded in quirky keyboard effects that seem to mimic the scattered sounds of nightfall.
Trust me when I tell you that, while they might sound avant-garde, Pram make music on the hummable fringe. I am reliably hostile to things that sound torturously posed, you know, the sorts of bands that the people who work at your local indie record store disdain you for not owning. I have very little patience for the aesthetic pecking order. Although Pram can sometimes tread dangerously close to that edge of music driven more by intellect than heart, Dark Island is a storyteller's paradise of invention, mood and sweetly lulling unease.