Dark Island

Merge Records

Though currently residing in perpetually sunny Miami, Florida, I happened to move around quite a bit up until this point. One thing I could never get a hang of were different regional dialects. While I’ve gotten used to certain things, I still don’t get why it’s called “pop” in one city, and “soda” in another. I did spend the majority of my childhood growing up in New England. Being an area big on boats and fishing, we were all familiar with what a pram was: a flat-bottom boat with a kind of snubbed nose bow. A sort of skiff, so to speak. So, when the musical group Pram came to my attention in the late ’90s, with their unique electro-rock styling, I just figured they had a certain affinity for boats. Imagine then, while relating these childhood memories to a buddy of mine after picking up Dark Island, the new Pram album, finding that outside of my New England vernacular shell, a pram is actually another word for a baby carriage. It certainly made more sense, at least. Well, we learn new things every day.

With their latest release, Pram once again delves in the now familiar post-rock/electronic fused musical territory that encompasses their previous six albums. Territory occupied by genre-giants Stereolab, Broadcast and Tortoise, Pram has always seemed to be the underdog of the group, playing catch-up with their more widely recognized contemporaries. Unlike other such bands, Pram has taken on a decidedly dark edge, as is readily evident on Dark Island. Always a cross between the electronic music-noir styling popularized by Portishead in the mid-’90s and their native post-rock genre, previous Pram efforts would only be audibly different from the more mainstream efforts of Stereolab by this moody touch. In fact, such a close similarity was the primary reason I could never get into Pram as much as I might have liked; listening to their albums only put me in the mood to throw on Stereolab’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup, or Tortoise’s TNT. However, with the release of Dark Island, I can finally say that album-swapping inclination is gone.

Dark Island seems to be a more cohesive album than any prior release by Pram. Previously, if I put in a Pram album, it was just the general sort of music I wanted to listen to, but nothing that particularly called out to me. Now, I find myself popping in Dark Island because I want to hear that Mariachi Horn riff of “Track of the Cat” that I’ve been humming all day, or to feel that sort of Technicolor imagery of “Sirocco.” And what imagery it is, as the entire album demonstrates. Nothing short of the James Bond theme itself will make a listener feel more of that 007-style atmosphere (think Goldfinger here, people), than Dark Island.

The sheer change of pace in individual songs also helps to keep the album from dragging. In the opening song, “Track of the Cat,” the image portrayed seamlessly changes from a ’60s spy thriller to being the soundtrack of a spaghetti western, with just the integration of a simple horn pattern. The fact that Pram can pull this off without it sounding forced, sloppy, or as bad clashing of styles, is worthy of applause.

Despite this, the album does occasionally sound like it’s dragging in a few places, although I truly get the impression that this is intentional, rather than the fault of bad pacing. Such slower tracks (“The Pawnbroker” and “Peepshow”) only reinforce the mood which Pram has worked so diligently to create.

The only down point of Dark Island is the same which has plagued all of Pram’s outings to date; consistently being overshadowed by stronger acts in their same variety of sound. Some listeners may still wonder why they would want to listen to Pram, when other more notable acts with a much more refined sound could be listened to instead. I can understand this vein of thought, completely. Being fond of analogies, I used to think of it as watching a movie on a nice quality 20″ TV, when I’ve got a better quality big screen TV sitting right next to it that I could watch instead. Dark Island has now given me cause to change my comparison. Still being fond of analogies, I ask myself, why play video games on an old Nintendo, when you’ve got a polished, brand new Playstation 2 sitting right next to it? Simple, because polish isn’t everything. It’s about which is more enjoyable. Dark Island has finally given me cause to regard Pram not as an underdog, but instead with a “separate but equal” attitude between them and their musical compatriots.

So next time I have to decide between putting on Stereolab, Tortoise, Broadcast or Pram, chances are I might just throw on Dark Island, turn it to “Sirocco,” and ask for my vodka martini shaken… not stirred.

Merge Records:

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