“I’m hoping to do some soundtrack work” is the former-indie-rocker equivalent of “I’d like to write children’s books”: a completely unrealistic goal of the underemployed and overambitious. This objective, usually accompanied by the purchase of a decent computer and some audio-manipulation software, in fact often yields the proverbial “soundtrack to an imaginary film,” an interview gambit that many music aficionados would be pleased never to come across againmostly because it promises a record boasting little besides meandering, ill-thought-out soundscapes with titles along the lines of “Michael Addresses the Stars.”
Despite having released an EP titled Music for Your Movies, Birmingham, England’s, Pram doesn’t make soundtracks to imaginary filmsit makes cheap knockoffs of the same. In the past 13 years, the group has infused genres from exotica to triphop with a distinctive strangeness, setting singer Rosie Cuckston’s schoolmarmish vocals against wacky backgrounds that rely as much on bunky keyboards and nostalgic references to old BBC children’s-show themes as on loops pried from dusty bargain-bin records. The over-the-top daffiness of the approach (which the band emphasizes via such flourishes as using an ironing board instead of a keyboard stand for live shows and donning carnival masks for photo shoots) doesn’t leave room for casual fans, and one spin of the new Dark Island’s opening cut, “Track of the Cat,” should help you figure out fairly rapidly which side you’re on.
Cueing off old Martin Denny records, the group picks up echoey, exotic percussion and plonks it into the middle of an old spaghetti-Western set, where it fights Ennio Morricone-style guitar and a whistled melody, occasionally pausing to pay homage to Philip Glass with choral yelps. If these reference points throw you, you’re probably better off with the most recent Sigur Rós CD. For the very few remaining, Dark Island is an enchanting tour through abandoned seaside amusement parks, crumbling resorts, and dusty old pawnshopsnot to mention a voyeur’s-eye view of a therapy session in which we watch Cuckston attempt to reconcile her secret and “normal” lives.
Unsurprisingly, the album’s first number with vocals, “Penny Arcade,” concerns the subconscious. “There’s a place that we all know,” Cuckston sings. “It’s the world where dreamers go.” Most of the songs that follow are organized around half-awake realizations such as “Nothing lasts long, nothing stays in place” and “Words make remote objects of us/Distant islands in an ocean of sound.” Some of Cuckston’s characters try to bridge the gap, but most get lost along the way. The heroine of “Paper Hats,” for example, throws annual parties for the man she blames for her insanity. And the title character of “The Archivist” battles the inevitable degradation of his body by trying to document his every hour and every feeling, never realizing he’ll be dead before he catches up.
A few of Dark Island’s songs are more threatening than triste; such is the demented tango of “The Pawnbroker,” on which Cuckston, in the guise of a spouse with a score to settle, washes the blood out of her husband’s clothes, singing “I repay the debt and one day you’ll owe me/And on a night you’ll regret, you will hand over the key.” As spooky as that track is, it’s Dark Island’s many instrumentals, arranged by Cuckston and musical partner Sam Owen, that best display Pram’s batty glory. “Peepshow” lumbers on a logy jazz-cat beat, a seamy clarinet and seedy trumpet building a burlesque more suited for a comic strip than a strip club. And the dingy guitar, creepy Casio tones, and flanged drums of “Sirocco” paint a picture of the band’s Land of Nod that’s about as scary as these things get. There may in fact be “No guidebook to the world of dreams,” as Cuckston sings on “Penny Arcade,” but Pram is an excellent Sherpa.
Dorine_Muraille’s Julien Locquet lives in the spiritual homeland of movie soundtracks: Cherbourg, France, the setting for Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical fantasy The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a movie in which the dialogue is entirely sung. Locquet himself doesn’t sing, however, so he enlisted best-selling French author Chloé DeLaume to mumble provocatively under his fractured soundscapes. For his part, Locquet writes music, runs it through a granular-synthesis program that chops everything up and spits it out randomly, and then watches the whole mess unspool. Though the results can be varied, the mechanism isn’t: Locquet is as attached to his PowerBook as a Capitol Hill workaholic.
Again, this isn’t something for casual fans. But if you like Oval, or any recent band whose name looks like part of a URL, Dorine_Muraille might just be your cup of thé. Mani, the group’s long-playing debut, starts quietly and gets spikier as the batteries in Locquet’s laptop discharge. The woozy beauty of “Dopées” early on pairs a DeLaume melody with, apparently, a Low song played through Microsoft Word. Then the beat falls apart, bells ring, typewriters click in the background, and DeLaume disappears to go veto something. A ukulele strum opens “Bbraalen” soon afterward, though it’s quickly swallowed by a rush of backward vibraphones and a snippet of a Celtic folk song.
“Madrague, Retour” is really the closest the album gets to loveliness: As a lazy acoustic guitar and a rubbed-raw string section get progressively less recognizable, DeLaume sings what sounds like a children’s song in the next room. Elsewhere, the group keeps things good and noisy. “Perdre”or “Les Docteurs que j’emmerde” (“The Physicians Upon Whom I Shit”), as its title comes up on iTunes (those wacky Froggy pranksteurs!)is as good an example as any: Against what might be the nervous clicking of a thousand computer mouses, Locquet tunes his virtual shortwave, drawing in fragments of piano and low-frequency oscillations while DeLaume coos and stutters nearby.
Just when you think Mani can offer nothing but the unnerving detritus of a recording session you might actually have enjoyed had Locquet not taken his gadgetry to its master tapes, the album pauses on the pleasing keyboard washes of “Muraille_1,” “Muraille_2,” and “Muraille_3.” Similar sounds frame “50ActionExpress”or, on iTunes, “Ils Cherchent Pour Voir si le Mec Est à la Hauteur”: They’re trying to figure out if the dude is up to the challenge, a question you might well be asking yourself at this point. Stay with it, though: With the aid of a little cough syrup, you’ll detect that “La Regle” even allows a subtle beatcomposed of static, yes, but a pulse nonethelessto pierce Locquet’s self-imposed digital gauze.
The song’s title”The Rule”is apt: For all its randomness, this is music composed by strict adherence to a programwhich can sometimes make it seem heartless and even pointless, like a security guard enforcing a stupid regulation just for kicks. Still, if you’re willing to work for your pleasure, Mani will reward you well. In other words, you bring the movie; Dorine_Muraille will provide the popcorn. CP