A Pram review! The first of many, I’m sure. This one’s about Sargasso Sea, their third album, and the first that consistently mines the sound they’re now most closely associated with. That sound is, of course, their own incredibly unique, underappreciated thing, and it consists of jazzy exotica, light, Krautrock-derived electronic experimentation, and loungey film music, all tinged with equal parts of childlike whimsy and childlike dread. That’s not all, but that’s as close as I can come.
There’s one important thing that I’d like to point out that my valiant description neglects, and that is the effortless groove at the heart of Sargasso Sea—actually, of all post-Helium releases. There’s an effete and mannered swing that’s fundamental to these songs, and it’s incredibly addictive and inviting. Incidentally, it’s a also a big part of what makes Pram so easy to lump in with fellow British post-rock band Stereolab.1 (Like any one-to-one band comparisons, as far as Pram’s concerned, though, it’s a lazy one. Instead of the komische rhythms and the Francophone/chanson influence that are Stereolab’s hallmarks, there are exotica and soundtrack echoes.)
Back to that groove: It’s important to point out that the key adjectives I used to describe it were “effete” and “mannered.” Pram hardly trades in rough, sultry, Keb Darge-approved deep cuts of funk. There’s no shouty call-and-response, no handclaps, no chickenscratch guitars. What there is is a stately, reserved head-nodding-inducing swing much more suited to langorous body-swaying than a sweaty dancefloor workout. I’d be tempted to use the term “white funk” if that didn’t conjure up just the most awful connotations of spastic post-punk specialists like Gang of Four, James Chance, or, more recently, Out Hud and the Rapture. Nothing against those bands,2 but Pram couldn’t be anything farther from that sound. Remember, we’re talking effete and mannered, not anthemic and angular.
This implicitly groovy sound is one of Sargasso Sea‘s (actually, Pram’s) winning traits. It’s what makes the luxuriously paced, bubbly meander of “Little Scars” and the cutely ramshackle percussion and burbling bassline of “Loose Threads” so alluring. It deepens the mystery of the resolutely spooky “Serpentine,” and it makes the breezy (or should I say Air-y) “Crystal Tips” more than just a pleasant diversion.
Sargasso Sea is an excellent record, one I can listen to from beginning to end with pleasure, but it’s not on par with Pram’s subsequent masterpieces, The Museum of Imaginary Animals and Dark Island (and is a couple notches below The Moving Frontier), as there are a few missteps. Though Pram is known for childlike aesthetics, “Three Wild Gorges” gets a little too cutesy, and features an embarrassingly corny horn sample. And the band seems a bit unsure of whether to steer “Crooked Tiles” back toward their noisy, Gash-era days, or to keep it in line with Sargasso Sea‘s overall mood.
Bah. Minor quibbles hardly worth writing down. The overarching point is that Sargasso Sea is great, often approaching brilliant, with its defiantly unique toybox/mini-cinema/exotica/lullaby aesthetic. Pram would go on to do much better things than this, but this marks the first time the band really brought everything together. Pram’s sound might be a difficult one to describe (which, I have to say, is a testament to their uniqueness), but it’s a treat to listen to.
1Though I go on to downplay the value of this comparison, there is an explicit connection between the two bands with the collaboration project Monade, which combines the songwriting efforts of Pram’s Rosie Cuckston and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier. And let’s just say Monade’s worth checking out, y’all. Trust me. Monade’s debut fulfills everything you want out of a side project. It’s small-scale, adorable, sounds like it was fun to make, and represents a perfect halfway point between the two collaborators.
2Well, except for the Rapture. Lots against that band.