rip-hop is over. For a while there, it must’ve seemed like a movement of some significance, a sort of jazz equivalent for the alternative 90s. But with genre innovators Massive Attack and Portishead fading into insignificance (P-head chanteuse Beth Gibbons abandoning the genre entirely on her solo debut last year) and one-offs like the Sneaker Pimps and Mono disappearing into thin air, it’s time to lay the genre to rest. Pram, while technically not a trip-hop band, carries much of the same baggage—the heavy atmospherics, the spy film soundtrack references, the somber instrumentation. But they offer a variation that, if not particularly memorable, is always listenable and quite enjoyable, without sounding out of date.
For one thing, Dark Island is an extremely jazzy album. Whereas most of trip-hop implied jazz with its smoky beats, occasional diva vocals, and overriding sense of cool, Pram is far more direct, employing clarinets, trumpets, and saxophones. This is heard most directly in the “Take Five”-esque “Paper Hats” and the New Orleans dirge “Peepshow,” but the instrumentation is scattered throughout the rest of the album, with solos in a large number of the songs. When talking about the band in reviews, the two reference points nearly always mentioned are Portishead and Stereolab, and as seemingly different as these two bands are, a combination of the two would actually be an adequate description of the band’s sound. Dark Island’s retro production, organ hooks and Nico-reminiscent vocals could’ve been straight from Emperor Tomato Ketchup, while reflecting the atmosphere and songwriting of Dummy.
The overall effect of the album is that of extremely pleasant background music. Singer Rosie Cuckton exclaims on “Paper Hats” about how “her words would leave a trail of blood,” but in fact, the lyrics have essentially no effect, and the vocals work basically as just another instrument, blending in with the rest of the mix. Similarly, the music is rather nice, even enough to keep you going back for multiple listens, but never quite sticks in your head, and few of the songs stand out from among the crowd. There are a few exceptions, however. “Penny Arcade” is the dreamy highlight of the album, tremolo-laced and surprisingly affecting, with Cuckton’s starry-eyed lyrics about a “place we all know/it’s where all the dreamers go/and whether it’s filled with colors or if it’s black or white/people go and visit every night.” And the second to last track, “Leeward,” is a gauzy, relatively tuneless but beautifully unsettling song that is similar to the Cocteau Twins’ use of “Otterley” on Treasure, sort of a gorgeously non-descript piece to clear the air before the soaring finale.
Dark Island fails to deliver that finale, choosing instead to end with the somewhat anticlimactic “Distant Islands,” but in the end, Dark Island leaves a very appealing taste in the mouth. Dark Island offers an interesting spin on a tired genre, and although it’s not going to bring Olive back into popularity, when it’s finished, you just might want to put it on again. A fine album.