Dense, tantalizing constructions like this are common enough in electronica, but this record never lets you think of it that way. The Burnside boys, multi-instrumentalists Gerald Hammill and Richard Jankovich, have enough history with standard-issue indie bands that they can't really get behind a record that's all beats and no songs, any more than they want to be another one of those "post-rock" bands that leaves a crowd immobilized and staring at the floor. Networks bounces back and forth among idioms like electrons shooting from one Ethernet port to another, every few songs pulling out another handful of brainy ear candy like those first 30 seconds.
(Incidentally, one of the more prominent guest stars on the networks - if you're on five songs, are you really still a "guest"? - is vocalist Shannon McArdle; she and another guest star, guitarist Pete Hoffman, are members of Brooklyn's The Mendoza Line, who record for Bar/None and Misra, a label that recently relocated to Austin. The band's first album was never quite released, but If They Knew This Was The End remedies that, compiling recordings made in 1996 before McArdle joined.)
Equally beguiling to the ears but not near as digitally enhanced, the mysterious UK group Pram recently released their sixth full-length disc, Dark Island, on Merge. Pram are kind of like Stereolab's forgotten siblings, separated at birth and shuttled off (before the French lessons started) to some dark forest filled with magic caves, lonely witches, and sentient vegetables.
The bandmates don't like to put their portraits on record sleeves, and won't even list their names inside - the credits read "Music by Pram, Lyrics by Rosie" - but a little investigation reveals a seven-piece band wielding such uncommon instruments as the glockenspiel, zither and glass hammer, the slightly more commonplace (these days) Theremin, and most importantly to the group's sound, a toy piano. That's a delicious combination on the album's numerous instrumental tracks, like the exotic, propulsive "Sirocco," which would make a Volkswagen ad exec wet himself.
The band is happy to calm down, though, when Rosie sings - her lonely, quavering voice talking about dreams, departures, and things kept under lock and key. Her lyrics color some of the more ambient tracks in between them, like "Leeward," which without the context would be about five beats-per-minute away from being a really nice Brian Eno track. As the record ebbs and flows, with plenty of lyric-free time for the mind to drift, those more deliberate songs start to resemble (in the words of the album's final cut) "distant islands in an ocean of sound ... disconnected by meaning they've found." Pram has been peppier before and surely they will be again, but Dark Island is a beautiful way to get lost in the fog. •