Pram are an experimental avant-garde four-piece hailing from Birmingham. Since forming in the late 80s, the band have released eight albums with last year’s Across the Meridian being their first since 2007’s The Moving Frontier. Pram’s current line-up consists of original members Sam Owen and Matt Eaton, together with long-standing member Max Simpson and Harry Dawes, who has been with the group since 2006. For the Adelphi show they were joined by The Nightingales’ Fliss Kitson on drums.
Pram’s Adelphi gig mostly showcased tracks from their latest album. Opening with the first three tracks from Across the Meridian– ‘Shimmer and Disappear’, ‘Thistledown’ and ‘Electra’- setting the tone for what turned out to be an incredibly captivating performance and confirming what a diverse and imaginative approach to music the band possess. From the moment the quirky jazz of ‘Shimmer and Disappear’ hit you, there is nothing to do but allow yourself to be carried away by Dawes’ trombone as it transports you down the rabbit hole into a world of wonder.
‘Thistledown’ begins in a Tom Waits vein, with a percussive opening of tom-toms and handbell, before whistling keyboards and an almost-funky distorted guitar break establishes a modish, 60s spy thriller mood. The 60s tone is carried over into ‘Electra’, the vibraphone samples reminiscent of an unhinged Modern Jazz Quartet. Both these numbers are comparable to fellow Brum band, Broadcast, and are distinguished by Owen’s haunting voice which sounds at it’s most wonderful on ‘Mayfly’, beautifully accompanied by electric accordion, synthesisers and theremin which add an unearthly ambience to the performance.
Pram incorporate a variety of jazz tropes into their music, incorporating traditional, modern and lounge jazz into their unorthodox pop. Hugely influenced by film scores and children’s TV programmes, there is a distinctly visual quality to their sound, the musical equivalent of expressionistic cinema which is emphasised by band performing in front of a projection backdrop, screening appropriately odd and creepy videos, possibly from their DVD of videos and film work Shadow Shows of the Phantascope? The cinematic influence of the music comes across like the work of film composers Roy Budd or John Barry as reimagined by David Lynch. During the performance of the ‘Ladder to the Moon’ there is a Blue Note vibe, whereas ‘The Midnight Room’ recalls Cab Calloway’s swing orchestra. ‘Sailing Stones‘ is an infectious and groovy piece of mod-jazz which conjures up images of 60s Swinging London – Georgie Fame remixed with synths and samples. The performance of ‘The Entropists’ with its sparky percussive sample shows Pram at their electronically skewed and anomalous best.
With the band members playing a wide array of instruments- guitar, bass drums brass and woodwind together with keyboards and a variety of synths, the gig highlighted Pram’s astonishing range of musicality, the inventive melodies driven by Kitson’s incredible rhythms. Surely Kitson must be one of the finest drummers on the scene at the present time? The performance also includes Wurlitzer-sounding keyboards which vividly create an impression of fairgrounds. The variety of keyboard and synth effects together with the Waitsesque rhythms and trombone on ‘Blind Tiger’ (one of 3 songs performed from The Moving Frontier) also reminded me of More Specials era Specials, but more particularly the under the skin creepiness of ‘Ghost Town’. There are occasional touches of the Mardi-Gras voodoo of Dr John on display throughout the show.
After ‘Doll’s Eyes’, which sounds like an unorthodox reworking of Barry’s The Ipcress File soundtrack, Pram round off their extraordinary set with two pieces from The Moving Frontier. ‘The Silk Road’ has an Eastern sounding feel before the curtain comes down with ‘The Empty Quarter’, another marvellously off-kilter 60s espionage thriller piece.
It is difficult to categorize Pram’s music as the terms “experimental” and “avant-garde” do not adequately convey the unsettling atmosphere and nocturnal, dream-like mood that their enigmatic music evokes. Yet, despite all the weirdness, Pram’s brand of uncanny neo-psychedelia is also incredibly tuneful, possessing a charming, childlike and naïve quality which destabilises the dark elements. Its pop music but with something lurking in the shadows. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of light and dark and the way they smuggle their eclectic strangeness under a jaunty pop template which makes Pram’s music such a uniquely mesmerising pleasure.
Words: Lee Freeman