January 24, 2003

Take a ride in a haunted pram

Imagine being a baby again. Imagine lying in a stroller wiggling your helpless little limbs as a distant, inaccessible figure, hovering above you, backlit by a yellow lamp, pushes you through a dark street. Now imagine that you can hear a troupe of kids banging on their older siblings' drums and keyboards in the distance, and you might have an idea of the experience of listening to Pram, an aptly named band.

While Pram shares certain traits with Broadcast, Stereolab, and perhaps Mùm as well, these similarities are somewhat superficial matters of instrumentation and ambience. Each band's atmospherics are tinged differently; Pram's are carnivalesque in a way that precludes the composure of Stereolab, the occasional gravitas of Mùm, or the serenity of Broadcast. This is more like an aural equivalent of Edward Gorey's books than of any band I can call to mind. Of the album's 10 tracks, about half include vocals. While Rosie Cuckston's vocals are never obtrusive, the instrumental tracks are generally the best because they don't attempt to articulate the nebulous sense of paranoia and wonder that listening to the album incurs. She actually puts it best herself in "Distant Islands," in which she says "One word can turn your world upside down/...silence can sometimes say more/about what things mean."

Still, this is a consistently enthralling listen, populated by shimmering specters of sound as slight as the paper doll silhouettes on the cover. The album begins with an ominous rattling before a beat kicks into gear accompanied by a whistling theremin, a capricious synth-hook, and disembodied voices that sound like they're trapped in bottles. Suddenly horns figure in and a sludgy guitar enters, a cathartic suggestion of a nightmare fragment.

"Penny Arcade" is underpinned with a low-frequency ray gun and soupy guitar reverb, providing an eerie complement to Cuckston's vocals. Here, when she sings "[there's] no guidebook to the world of dreams/And whether it's filled with horrors or it's warm and bright/People go to visit if it's day or night," there's no question she's suggesting the inevitability of nightmares.

"Paper Hats" recalls John McEntire-produced Stereolab (in a good way), and the playful spookiness of "Peepshow" is hypnotizing, but it is the sixth track, "Sirocco," which makes the next great impression. In this song Pram amalgamates synthesizer, a bossa nova beat, clanging triangles, and a bachelor pad organ riff with what sounds like sitar and harmonium to create a frightening but alluring soundscape that is at once referential and entirely unique.

Although, or perhaps because, the album ends abruptly, the listener is left with a dewy nocturnal residue. After leaving the Dark Island, you want to worm around in the wet soil and root up creepy-crawlies even while you want to cling to your bed and go to sleep with the lights on. Nighty-night.