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Despite surface differences, hipster-beautiful Laika and spunky-ugly Pram were both conceived by the same ‘rents: Poppa Rock and Momma Dub. Both groups were nurtured in the electronica-informed British post-rock scene of the early ’90s. And both once found a home on the Too Pure label, a welcoming orphanage for slightly scarred pop bands like Stereolab, Seefeel, and Long Fin Killie. Back then, both Pram and Laika had an edgy sound that suggested that they’d received heavy doses of John Coltrane, Can, Lee “Scratch” Perry, the Pop Group, This Heat, and England’s then-flourishing rave scene. But like children, bands grow up, and when Laika and Pram hit puberty, their family resemblance began to fade. Laika grew into the popular girl who reads Sartre but is still voted homecoming queen; Pram continued to be the unkempt punk who can’t break away from musically cataloging the warped dreams that she suffers.
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Laika formed in 1993, when vocalist/guitarist Margaret Fiedler and bassist John Frenett left the post-shoegaze/free-jazz/dub group Moonshake and teamed with multi-instrumentalist/producer Guy Fixsen and God drummer Lou Ciccotelli. The band’s first EP, Antenna, and album, Silver Apples of the Moon, featured a variation of Moonshake’s bottom-heavy stomp that was tempered slightly by Fixsen’s pop sensibility. It sounded like the perfect marriage of Can’s groove-based organic jams and electronica’s swirling counterpoint melodies. Laika’s pop personality emerged completely on 1997’s Sounds of the Satellites, a collection of ephemeral groove tunes that drifted in one ear and out into a musical cosmos littered with triphop debris and ambient-funk trash left over from the great commercial bust that was popular electronica.
Laika’s latest, Good Looking Blues, finds the middle ground between Silver Apples’ edginess and Satellites’ accessibility. The album is polished, professional, and, with Fiedler’s breathy rapped-sung vocals evoking Madonna in Erotica mode, potentially a pop-chart crossoveror it would have been three years ago, before the whole world went rock-rap. Bawitdaba, indeed.
Fiedler and Fixsen build their songs around the repetition and layering of simple riffs and sequenced melodies. They artfully combine samples and live performances for a sound that is both rigid and flowing, as exemplified on “Black Cat Bone,” which mixes bass clarinet, turntables, flute, and Mini Moog with Fiedler’s break-up lyrics: “I gave him my sugar/He switched it for salt/Should have seen him coming/That’s always my fault.”
Like Madonna, Fiedler isn’t great at lyrics, though she does far better than the elementary school couplets spouted by the Material Mom. But, also like Madonna, she’s not really about the lyrics. Fixsen is a highly skilled studio boffin, able to loop small samples into expansive-sounding but tightly bound dance songs. Throughout Good Looking Blues, it’s hard to tell what’s sequenced, what’s live, what’s synthesized, and what’s real. It almost sounds as if the album were recorded live and then chopped up and compressed with a computer-editing program into a sonic spreadsheet. A song like “Moccasin,” with its dreamy Fender Rhodes melody, percussive zips, turntable scratches and mildly disjointed samples, sounds at once claustrophobic and as wide-open as the night sky.
Whereas Laika’s interplay of rock and dub tendencies leans toward the former, Pram’s positively revels in the latter. The Museum of Imaginary Animals, Pram’s fifth proper album, is a beautiful mess, led by singer Rosie Cuckston’s helium-light, board-flat vocals and nightmarishly noir lyrics and multi-instrumentalist Sam Owen’s quirky, stumbling arrangements.
Pram began in 1990 and released the bare-boned Gash album in 1992, although that release only hinted at the oddly lush fairy-tale sound the group would later develop. The Iron Lung EP soon followed, but it wasn’t until 1993’s The Stars Are So Big, the Earth Is So Small…Stay as You Are and 1994’s Helium that the band’s childlike, schizophrenic whirl of guitar and theremin, zither and off-kilter drums, glockenspiel and Moog converged into something truly special.
By 1995’s Sargasso Sea and 1998’s North Pole Radio Station, Pram’s sound had become a bit formulaic: Mix one-third Martin Denny exotica, one-third Brothers Grimm poetry, and one-third jazz-, hiphop-, and dub-inflected postmodern pop; shake vigorously; then lay on Cuckston’s vocals in any key other than that of the rest of the song. Museum isn’t much different from its previous albums, but the ingredients of a good Manhattan never change, either, and it still gets you plowed, right? Right on, you lush.
Tunes like “A Million Bubbles Burst,” a calliope-and-broken-jack-in-the-box mixture of plinks and plunks, and “Play of the Waves,” a blend of bulky brass and wispy keyboards, sound as if they could have come from any one of Pram’s last three albums: Exotic sounds filter in and out of the mix with all the order of an open-seating rock concert. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Museum is that Cuckston’s voice hasn’t changed at allfor better or worseover the past decade. Sensitive ears will not be able to take her warbles, even when she sings such provocatively sad lyrics as those of “Bewitched”: “No one ever said my life wasn’t free/Or openly declared war on me/But a child’s a radar for signals from above/How to get or not get love.” But those who don’t fear a little off-key crooningOK, a lot; we’re talking Ohio-flat herewill appreciate her highly individualistic style and Museum’s unusual charms. CP