England - Full Moon 79 - 03/18/03
A Certain Ratio
Soul Jazz Records
New York has its beats, its bumps up against the others, cramped on the 4-5-6, differing
universes and races colliding with no apologies and lotsa mulattoes. And it has insular eggs that
crack open with silly putty guts, the shell always open to the dirt of the others. Everybody
ultimately mixed up together. Like omelets that stick to the subway's platforms, little annoying
globby gunks of gum stepped to black, leeching nutrients out of the sole bottom subterranean dirt.
And then you have these touristos coming into the city, spraying melanin tans on and wearing
Nazi-bobby socks out in the summer, flashing their unsprayed limey legs in the summertime light.
A near-ally of Joy Division, A Certain Ratio's branch was much more immigration, geometry,
and Parliament-orientation than their brethren. And here are these young men, brought forward
again nearly twenty years on, showing just how they stole their foreign strains while visiting
the city's street markets way back when. Cuban drums, Tompkins Square Park's rattles and tambours,
street booms and R&B radio brass all got stuck to their sticky bare backs, newspaper nearly
mirrored with the black lines and reversed print faces. Taking these rhythmic residues back home
to Manchester so as to let them incubate and inform their work hence, ACR did it all back when
such border-crossing and indigenous viral strain-swapping was still permissable.
Now, twenty years along, we can see what it meant to be "early," or more incisively, "open,"
letting all sounds, incongruous, localized or not, filter into what you and your mates do,
cross-pollinating the revelatory punk of youth merge with the forbidden American black radio of
funk, their brass with your industrial clash. A Certain Ratio really drank the water in New York.
Soul Jazz follows a nice line here, now obvious, but at the era represented, probably more
ambiguous and amoebic, starting from its excellent Nu Yorica and Ocho reissues of
the past few years and now working forward a few years with the recent post-punk overview of In
the Beginning, which mixed raw DIY noise sensibilities with the dancefloor more in sight.
This particular strand of nascent ACR states the cases of crossbreeding and musical mutations
most succinctly. How else could you imagine a Pato y Totito-Throbbing Gristle mulatto except by
way of the Martin Hannett-produced "Blown Away," so roaring in its percussive intensity? "Si
Fermir O Grido," which used to close all their sets, is another fine example of
"hit-anything-make-a-noise" festivity that seems to be all pervasive at the time.
Their geometric touches were quite different than the more recognizably angular punk of
contemporaries like Gang of Four, the Slits, or ESG though, employing horns, near-dead voices,
and irksome amounts of noise into unstable musical shapes that more often than not balanced just
right at the borders, when you had to have your papers and shit in order. "Gum" could almost be
Human League-chilled, were it not for the coyotitos that chitter and howl throughout the brassy
clip. And "Skipscada," with its rattles, whistles, and gongs, has its cacophony coated with the
most menacing of Mexico City smogs, hanging heavy over the sound even as it attempts to brighten
and bounce like jumping beans.
Such irregular geometry even helps balance the more uneven numbers. The long and intolerable
"Sounds Like Something Dirty" gets brittle and brutal by track's end, shocking you back with its
prolonged blasts. It remains unbearable, yet the piercing sound somehow justifies the piece. And
their approach to vocals is truly bizarre, more arcs than right angles, everything from a gummy
Morris Day and ghoulish Ian Curtis murmur to the Lydia Lunch-like squeals of "Knife Slits Water"
and the chimp chirps of "Saturn," all non-rational, and yet it somehow works out well over the
two disc set.
What does rankle me the most is that the notes sorely lack. Is this To Each, the first record,
or just a batch of early singles? Is the excellent "Waterline" really meant to stand together
with the excruciating cardboard funk of "Life's A Scream"? There are few dates mentioned, and
production notes only accompany the John Peel Sessions on disc two. The interview in the booklet
is quite sprawling though, providing a much-needed glimpse into what paradigms A Certain Ratio
worked within and without to create their unique Manchesterian sound shapes. Perhaps it will
spark more cultural-smuggling in a non-smug manner.
Copyright © 2003 Andy Beta