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A Certain Ratio

Soul Jazz

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The cover of A Certain Ratio’s old-but-new Early is playfully suggestive: four young white boys, naked from the waist up and demurely avoiding eye contact. In their midst, looking straight at the camera, is some black dude with ’70s-style disco goggles and fatigues. He’s Donald Johnson, the man with the Funkadelic’d drumming know-how and the object of his Mancunian bandmates’ musical desire. Prior to Johnson’s ACR recruitment, in 1979, a drummerless, coulda-been-sung-by-Ian Curtis debut, “All Night Party,” suggested that the band fit comfortably into the emerging Factory roster. The post-punk stylings weren’t abandoned with the arrival of a percussionist, but the resultant DIY funk gave ACR a dance-floor advantage over downcast labelmates such as Joy Division and Crispy Ambulance. A jaunty cover of Northern-soul favorite “Shack Up” even landed at No. 52 on the Billboard charts in 1980, thanks largely to New York City clubgoers. The double-disc Early showcases some of the story before that, including Peel sessions from 1979, but it mainly documents the period between 1980 and 1982, when in a 15-month span ACR released a handful of singles (including the majestic “Flight” and “Waterline”), two LPs (To Each… and Sextet), and one impossible-to-find cassette (The Graveyard and the Ballroom). It was a time of palpable musical tension, with Factory trying to impose its trademark brooding sound via Martin Hannett’s production even as ACR looked to free up the funk. On “Flight,” Hannett’s typically cavernous rumble encases the rhythm section, accompanied throughout by muted guitar effects and Simon Topping’s mournful vocals, which sound dropped onto the track directly from a windy hilltop. Not that ACR needed Hannett to keep the vibe flowing: The self-produced Sextet sessions delivered warmer drums and more funk, but the eeriness remained. On taut slap-bass efforts such as “Knife Slits Water” and “Gum,” Martin Moscrop’s elephant bleat of a trumpet makes the voices of Topping and his female foil, Martha Tilson, sound even more disembodied than usual, and even the sprinkling of Latin percussion and scatlike singing on “Skipscada” doesn’t kill the mood. Like New Order, ACR increasingly cozied up to the dance-clubsters as the decade progressed, so 1984’s “Life’s a Scream,” one of the latest songs here, is a veritable major-label come-hither. That track has aged accordingly, but most of Early is a pleasant reminder that, once upon a time, ACR’s ass-shakin’ could be as fucked-up as it was funky. —Mark Williams