Graded on a Curve: Pram, The Stars Are So Big, the Earth Is So Small…Stay as You Are and Helium

Although long defunct, throughout the 1990s the UK label Too Pure promulgated a sweet heaping mess of worthwhile musical activity; most illustrious in the outpouring were PJ Harvey and Stereolab, but numerous additional acts fortified the scenario, and amongst the finest was Pram. Formed in Birmingham, England in 1990, the experimental pop outfit released three full-lengths on Too Pure, and the first two, ’93’s The Stars Are So Big, the Earth Is So Small…Stay as You Are and the following year’s Helium are available via Medical Records of Seattle, WA.

Pram initially came together in the late ‘80s under the name Hole. Eventually their founding members, namely Rosie Cuckston on vocals and keyboards, Matt Eaton on guitar, Samantha “Sam” Owen on bass, and Andy Weir on drums, changed the moniker to Pram, and their first recordings wielded an abrasive, nervous quality derived from indie rock and traceable back to their home country’s post-punk innovators, in particular The Slits and The Raincoats.

As part of the upside-down musical landscape of the early ’90s, Pram has surely been categorized as one component in the truly seismic indie explosion. But instead of being tidily indicative of the ’80s underground’s absorption into the mainstream of the ensuing decade, the group can be accurately tagged as prescient; circa ’88 as Hole their sound reportedly sprang entirely from vocals and a homemade Theremin.

Pram has been described as everything from experimental pop/rock to neo-psychedelia to dream pop, but they seem best pegged as an early example of post-rock (though at least one member of the band disagrees) as they adopted a wide range of atypical instrumentation, borrowed ideas from a Krautrock and post-punk antecedents, honed their skills as multi-instrumentalists and then strove to not sound like anyone else.

Adding Max Simpson on keyboard and sampler, Pram issued the “Gash” EP on their own Howl Records in ’92 and followed it up with the “Iron Lung” EP for Too Pure the next year. Both were recorded by Justin Broadrick of Godflesh, and as stated above they possessed a punkish edginess marking them as developmental works.

It’s an approach that lingers on The Stars Are So Big, the Earth Is So Small…Stay as You Are; while opener “Loco” offers the welcome keyboard flavoring previously established on their EPs, the flailing guitar is still quite prominent in the scheme, and the track’s most distinctive elements are its rhythm, essentially a lively dance beat, and Cuckston’s vocals, which start in chilly post-punk territory and sharply detour into a childlike zone.

It’s a frequent descriptor, though Cuckston avoids the twee for a productive eeriness, a feature retained on the instrumentally expansive second cut; “Radio Freak in a Storm” begins in a fairly complacent lullaby mode (with an undercurrent of menace) only to gradually boost the intensity to culminate in a frenzy of string-sawing.

The strongest evidence that Pram was a newish thing rather than a late manifestation of the old is their choice of instrumentation; it’s important to remember that the majority of indie rock focused on the trad guitar, bass, drums, and vox setup, the residue of punk orthodoxy rating keyboards as a maneuver into the pop field. This isn’t necessarily a falsehood; Pram doesn’t really rock on “Loredo Venus,” though the whole is propelled by energetic drum rolls and sturdy bass amid layers of percussion and keys helping to steer a wide berth around normalcy.

And at the forefront is Cuckston, her singing unusual without seeming contrived and disinclined to hog the spotlight; her input to “Milky” is crucial, but much of the tune is devoted to the prettiness of its atmosphere as Pram’s instrumental sophistication clearly blossoms. Side one’s closer “Dorothy” turns up the energy, exuding a cyclical Krauty/Velvets swipe at the start, and it sets abrasiveness aside for the aura of a weird carnival.

Those wondering where the neo-psych fits in will get their answer via the 16 minute “In Dreams You Too Can Fly”; casting a dark hue, it’s enhanced by extensive improvisation on trumpet (by someone identified as Mr. Verdigris Horn). Sounding a bit like a less husky Nico in a breezy aviary accompanied by Casio and a hand drum, “The Ray” eschews any pretense to rocking for the boons of texture and mood. “Cape St Vincent” finds Cuckston’s gentle sing-along enveloped in metronomic rhythms, string bowing and chiming tones for a satisfying finale.

The Stars Are So Big is a solid full-length, but it captures Pram partway to full flower; ’94’s “Meshes” EP brought them significantly nearer, and with Helium they were almost completely there. Commencing with “Gravity,” the band’s playing is as urgent and vibrant as it is carefully assembled with increased confidence discernible across the spectrum; the swiftness of growth is exceedingly apparent in Cuckston, her ease as a vocalist rising substantially without curtailing her uniqueness.

As evident through the springy oscillations of “Dancing on a Star,” Pram had become progressively more comfortable with the technology and the offbeat instruments at their fingertips, with Simpson’s role registering deeper overall and specifically during the swaying lushness of “Nightwatch.” From there “Things Left on the Pavement” spreads out to nearly seven minutes as the keyboards reestablish a touch of the psychedelic and Weir excels on the tom drums; next is “Windy,” a passage of collage-like experimentation underscoring the cited influence of The Residents.

Side one concludes with “My Father the Clown,” aptly circuslike in a Fellini-esque manner; this underlines Pram’s oft-mentioned cinematic attributes, while the flip begins with the crisply engaging “Blue,” trumpet, organ tones, and sampler simultaneously cultivating retro and forward-thinking momentum as the tune hints at cerebral engagement with the era’s exotica-lounge fixation.

“Little Angel, Little Monkey” is Helium’s all-around standout, managing to imbue angular phrase of clarinet squeak-wiggle with infectiousness and surrounding it with precise repetition, elastic bits, and Cuckston’s intoning, which is halfway between breathy and icy. “Meshes in the Afternoon” reinforces the cinematic, gleaning its title from Maya Deren’s experimental film classic of ’43 Meshes of the Afternoon; it couples well with “Windy.” The record ends strongly as “Shadows” displays a firm handle on mood, instrumental acumen, and sonic construction.

Some observers rate ’95’s Sargasso Sea, Pram’s final effort for Too Pure, as their highpoint, and others look ahead to 2000’s Museum of Imaginary Animals, the second in a string for Domino (at home) and Merge (in the States), as the group’s best. It’s not a simple choice, but the albums ushering Pram to their peak period shouldn’t be overlooked. Medical’s reissues make it easy to trace their upward creative trajectory.

The Stars Are So Big, the Earth Is So Small…Stay as You Are
B+

Helium:
A-

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