Pram: Dark Island

Terry Sawyer


Dark Island

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2003-04-08
UK Release Date: 2003-01-20

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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