Since its debut in 1992, the Birmingham, England, collective Pram has made music that's so deceptively simple, it sounds like it was written on a toy piano -- by tykes on huge doses of Ritalin. On the surface, the band's sixth full-length, Dark Island, is of a piece with the group's previous work: same childlike themes, same breathy female vocals, same otherworldly vibe. But on repeated listens, Pram shows newfound compositional strength. No longer seeming like haphazard babes in toyland, the band members construct dreamy soundtracks, whimsically orchestrated with sci-fi theremins, sonar pings, and lounge-y trumpets.
The album starts out with the epic "Track of the Cat," recalling Ennio Morricone's spaghetti Western scores, its elementary keyboard refrains buoyed by strings and even wind effects. Other tunes, like "The Pawnbroker," evoke Angelo Badalamenti's lush minimalism. And "Leeward" captures the tiki bar allure of South Seas exotica, with celestial synthesizers and slack-key guitar.
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While rather limited, Rosie Cuckston's airy vocals are perfectly suited to the spacey filmic material. By whispering lyrics both playful and scary, she draws listeners into the songs, like Alice down the rabbit hole. Meanwhile, multi-instrumentalist Sam Owen adds hundreds of small touches on keyboards, flute, accordion, and guitar, constructing the details as though he were building a cathedral out of LEGOs. Eleven years down the road, Pram sounds more confident and focused than ever on Dark Island. Apparently you can become a virtuoso on a toy piano.