July 23, 2024

A CERTAIN RATIO – “ACR:BOX” – punky, funky, dubby and dancey

MUTE RECORDS       3 May 2019

If you don’t know A Certain Ratio, you should. Though where to start? This is a band that had multiple phases and shapes. Serially innovators, creators and followers of fashion, they are a conundrum. Mainstay of Factory Records (five albums and their very first solo artist release), yet name-checked mostly in retrospect. This is a fascinating band to explore. If that’s what you want, head to Mute’s excellent single disc release, ACR:SET, which collects important tracks across the band’s history.

This set collects the other tracks that weren’t on album releases. Singles, B-sides, demos, remixes, radio sessions. It has some seminal tracks here and many hours of happy listening, though two CDs would have been better for an all-killer, no-filler compilation. Discs 1 and 2 are singles – As and Bs (minus the ones on ACR:SET). For the tracks otherwise on SET, delve into discs 3 and 4 for remix versions – for example the electronic version of Shack Up, which isn’t as good as the original but still great. There are some superb sequences – like Waterline / Funaezekea / Abacadubra / Sommadub – you’ll catch funky bass lines, like a less angry Gang Of Four, leading into three dub tracks with slow and wide space. They are a huge distance stylistically from the essential jitteriness of their debut single, All Night Party, yet a tiny step chronologically. The band moved rapidly from sparse skittery guitars and clattery student disco drums through territories shared with Joy Division to big meaty funk such as Knife Slits Water (check it out – it’s a highpoint).

Channelling the shared zeitgeist of Talking Heads, Gang Of Four, Joy Division, Level 42, there is a lot of dance material here – big bass and Latin percussion. When the 4 / 4 remixers get hold of some tracks, they suffer but the standard is otherwise high. When ACR try out Talking Head’s Houses In Motion, the distance is clear – dry and alienated is their forte and the palette is paler. They follow it with a demo that extends in time but not space. A cover of Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry Bout A Thing, similarly adds nothing but shows ACR could be a straight pop band, as with Fever 103. On The Runner they approach New Order in sound – groovy drum beat, slow bass, lugubrious vocals. I Need Someone Tonight is tight and funky, as is Sounds Like Something Dirty. Many of the tracks on discs 2 and 3 are extended grooves and some aren’t worth the extension. On the other hand, the echoing empty horn on And Then Again adds essential funky groove to a Miles Davis alienation.

Then you might stumble over the lost Piu Lento, a lost John Peel session track that is a lovely loping Latin wander or the insanely leaping Nostromo A Go Go. Then again, you might find the 808 tracks tedious – this is the point ACR started following the crowd that they’d previously led. They probably enjoyed it but it lacks the interest of other material. As mentioned, this band changed a lot and band members were in and out like a revolving door, so this set varies a lot. Once we reach the demos they did for A&M, you’ll wonder if this is the same group. Gone are the authentically funky polyrhythmic workout and exploration of dancefloor variations, in favour of damp vocal indie-pop. This set acts as a history of a band reaching in different directions and there is much to be learnt by other bands, like reshaping your sound for pop success leads to both lack of commercial success and lack of critical kudos too.

The magpie effect hits gold on disc 4 with dancefloor stompers in the genre of Electronic, or Moloko. Gregorian chant mixes into the opener, conventional dance sounds feature but so do elements of the funky groove from earlier years. Samples are enjoyed and dub effects applied to positive effect. By pursuing their strengths whilst adding contemporary colours, their most potentially commercial work is here, though I’ll always favour the punky or funky stuff for their absence of compromise.

It is a huge set, better if shortened, but everything is worth your time and half of it rewarding repeated exploration until they worm their way into your heart. ACR were in the right place and the wrong place at a tight time, influenced (and sometimes influencing) Talking Heads, Joy Division and New Order; they weren’t quite as funky as Talking Heads, not as doomy as Joy Division and not as massively cross-over in appeal as New Order. In ACR you hear so many other bands they influenced and some they were influenced by – the spirit of the age is here and your ears will be tickled more than frustrated.

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