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Posts tagged with ‘pram sargasso sea’

Pram – Sargasso Sea

September 1, 2010

pram sargasso seaA 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.

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Pram and Their Lonely, Exotic Carnival

May 13, 2010

Pram nominally operates in post rock, which is–or, at least was, for a long time–a critical darling of a genre.  In post rock, bands are known for their willingness to experiment and hybridize nontraditional influences in rock.  It’s kind of the point.  Right?  (We’re talking about the first-wave stuff here, that proud and brave and aurally delicious era from about 1992-1997.)

pram band

Anyway, within a field already packed with unique-sounding bands, Pram is a long-running one whose influences–John Barry-esque soundtrack music, Martin Denny-esque exotica, dub, light 60s psychedelia, & nursery rhymes, all filtered through a uniquely childlike sense of unease–blend together to form something absolutely like nothing else.  On paper, they’re the perfect band for some serious critical wanking, but if they’re ever given a positive writeup, it’s almost always faint, reserved praise.  Just as often, they’re torn apart, or worse, ignored.

You ready for this question?  Okay, here it is: why?

I have some theories, but they all kind of depress me.  Perhaps the biggest thing holding Pram back from wider critical acclaim is that the music the band makes is not capital-i Important.  Rather than constantly reaching for any serious-faced major artistic statement, Pram makes resolutely small-screen and unselfconsciously strange music, traits that don’t typically earn awed respect.  We want our Artists to make Statements, and Pram doesn’t do that.  (That what they do is at once entirely unique, immediately recognizable, and yet consistently fresh over a nearly two-decade career is beside the point, of course.)

Which brings me to a second point about the general dismissal of Pram as a major force: they are not groundbreaking in the sense that there are a legion of followers tilling away at the path they blazed.  You can’t point to a scene or band of note that’s indebted in any overt sense to Pram.  This also works against them, because, again, “important” bands spawn other bands.  Pram hasn’t done that yet, and after 17 years of being around (and with post rock being, for all intents and purposes, a legacy genre), I doubt they will.

Many “important” bands that don’t receive a lot of credit are “difficult.”  Is Pram “difficult?”  It naturally depends, but I don’t think so.  They’re one of those bands that I fervently love and cheer for incessantly.  Like Long Fin Killie, Movietone, Spacemen 3, and Bark Psychosis, I push music by Pram on all of my friends whenever I can, especially their two early-2000s releases, The Museum of Imaginary Animals and Dark Island, which are their two most accessible albums.  I’ve played records by all these bands for any and all of my friends willing to put up with my obsessions, but the only one that has been universally liked has been Pram.

Sure, the songs on even these two albums are “weird,” but to nearly anyone with more than a passing interest in music (as in, not your mom or little nephew), it’s a safely exotic, alluring weirdness.  Yes, many songs, especially on Dark Island, are “eerie,” but it’s a childlike, whimsical eeriness that you find in some of the darker, more impressionistic children’s films.  Unsettling, sure, but still okay for general consumption (“general,” in this case, meaning the rare few of the populace who would ever care to make it this far into a piece about any non-mainstream musical act).

Navel gazing ad nauseam.  There’s obviously a bigger question to tackle here–why some bands get lauded and others passed up–but I neither feel able to answer it nor fully up to the task of tackling it right now.  You can understand, I’m sure.  Rather than going there, I leave you with some spectacular, Prammy deliciousness.


And I’ll be bringing some more Prammy deliciousness to the table soon.  Reviews I’m definitely doing are for Sargasso Sea, Dark Island, The Museum of Imaginary Animals, and The Moving Frontier, all kind of latter-day releases.  I may go deeper and hit up some more stuff for you all.  If I do, I’ll add them in here and link up appropriately like the good guy I am.

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