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Pram - The Moving Frontier

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Artist: Pram

Album: The Moving Frontier

Label: Domino

Review date: Feb. 7, 2008

Do I detect a hint of infantilism around critical reception of Birmingham outfit Pram? Writers regularly refer to their childlike chops, charmingly under-developed production or ingénue vocals, but I don’t hear this as building block music. By fixating on the child in the pram, you miss other inferences in the group’s name: the maternal, the troubles of gender assignment (both perhaps more relevant to earlier records), the basics of everyday living, and the notion of the ‘perambulation,’ which in Pram’s case takes on the character of a tender psychogeography of half-deserted cities.

The Moving Frontier is Pram’s most confident album yet, so those infantilizing observations are all the more unfair. It’s heavily weighted toward instrumentals, which is where the group indulge their “music for your movies” fantasies, from back-masked thumb pianos, through curls of Bollywood brass, into occult sound design of strange derivation. Songs like “Iske” and “The Silk Road” are nostalgic for no-places, eerie conurbations that collect mysterious geographies inside an unreal atlas.

When Rosie Cuckston’s voice appeals from the gallery, though, everything changes. Tellingly, her five appearances on the album correspond to its finest moments. On “The City Surveyor,” Cuckston sings of scrutiny and complicity, and an odd tableau unfolds where “Everyone wants a date with the city surveyor,” before panning out to observe the metropolis and its panoptic design: “Everyone wants positioning, no person can be unmapped.” Throughout, she’s barely supported by a shuddering sample that spills across the song like ectoplasm from a medium’s mouth.

“Salva’s” queerly compelling opening couplet – “Are you afraid of sugar, scared of salt?” – weaves an uncanny web around a song that’s less composed, more locked together from scraps and fragments. Lilting, fragile guitar knits together gently pulsing bass and drowsy brass, everything alighting in a lamp-lit harbor. Here, Pram are happy paddling in their own inlet, swaying in consort while calling on aquatic logic. The following “Moonminer” is the flipside, traversing parched territories where “each tiny thing clasps its slow gasp of life,” with Cuckston’s voice an “alien cry” as the group re-styles My Bloody Valentine’s “To Here Knows When” as if it were arranged by Morricone.

“Hums Around Us” dreams of a population that’s “gone crazy, so it seems, staring at those sunbeams,” while the noise of electricity pulses through their blood; they’re possessed by solar energy. Pram’s songs document characters that cling to their own systems, trying carefully to tread their way through cities and landscapes pockmarked with the effects of our socio-political malaise. When they do leave the Earth, as on “Moonminer’s” parallel planet, they discover a world just as unappealing or uninhabitable.

Pram have gone on record expressing their fascination for 20th century Eastern European animation. The peculiar mystery of films like Jiri Trnka’s Kybernetická Babička is that they envision a future that never eventuated. Rather, we live in (or live through) urban spaces that are palimpsests, part-erased by each subsequent phase of rebuilding, scrawling over our projections of what modern suburbia should be. Pram’s music sings curiously hauntological melodies, spun from glimmers of hope that one day their dreamt reality might come true, their imagined city built from the rubble of the present. Until then, we can contend with these beautiful, half-remembered songs.

By Jon Dale

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