Monday, May 06, 2013

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Always one of the indie world's most elliptical bands, Pram keep churning out consistently good, consistently interesting albums that, even though they never sound alike, always sound quintessentiallyPram. This mix of consistency and unpredictability continues on Dark Island, an album whose sound and artwork suggest a carnival at midnight or a party at a haunted house. Fans of their previous album, the luminous Museum of Imaginary Animals, might be disappointed; while it's not quite a return to their abrasive sound of works like HeliumDark Island is, well, darker and more disturbing, with retro, noir-inspired elements that add to its paranoia-steeped feel. This vibe is evident in instrumentals such as the wonderful opener "Track of the Cat," which spans playfully spooky jazz, backwards sounds, and a detour into brass-driven lounge, but comes to eerie fruition in the songs that Rosie Cuckston sings. Even on seemingly gentle songs like "Penny Arcade," she explores dreams and disillusionment, and chronicles the beginning and end of a messy relationship that seems to be Dark Island's subtext, if not its main concept.Cuckston's girlish, charmingly limited vocals take on a darker cast in this context, suggesting Ophelia backed by a freaked-out jazz combo; on the superficially slinky, smoky "The Pawnbroker," she trades her heart for security, muttering, "so now I wash the blood out of the uniforms you wear/and stitch and mend your life up wherever there's a tear." A fearful view of commitment, an obsession with possessions (and possessing), and the passing of time hover over the album, particularly on songs like the circular, disorienting "The Archivist" and "Goodbye," a breakup lament driven by horror movie organs; all ofPram's albums are filmic, but Dark Island's mix of creeping, deadpan dread and soured love makes it the musical equivalent of Repulsion or The Collector. Not coincidentally, the songs with vocals are the darkest and most difficult, giving the album a strange intimacy that is balanced by its many instrumentals, which display Pram's more typically clever, whimsical sound. Nevertheless, songs like the pretty but unsettled "Leeward" -- where the heroine of the album presumably escapes -- share the darker feel of the album's vocal tracks. The slightly sleazy "Peepshow" sounds like something from an Angelo Badalamenti score played on toy instruments, while "Sirocco" emphasizes the album's exotica influence with its rattlesnake percussion and oboe-like keyboards. An odd and off-kilter album even for an odd and off-kilter band, Dark Island is a surprisingly complex and intimate work that is strangely compelling if you're willing to spend awhile in its shadows.


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