Manchester’s post-punk music scene in the early ’80s had a rivetingly weird relationship to pop—grasping at the mainstream with one hand, shoving it away with the other. A Certain Ratio started out as ascetic avant-gardists; their first single, 1979’s “All Night Party”, was beatless and entirely un-party-like. Then they picked up the smashingly sharp funk drummer Donald Johnson, Jeremy Kerr got into slapping and popping his bass like he was Larry Graham, and they started hanging out in New York City clubs—the same sort of conversion to dance music that their scenemates and (Factory Records) labelmates New Order were undergoing at the time. In 1980 and 1981, ACR’s singles “Do the Du” and “Shack Up” were even getting played at some of those dance clubs.
After singer Martha Tilson joined up to give trumpeter Simon Topping a break from his reluctant position as frontman, A Certain Ratio’s six-piece lineup recorded and self-produced their third album, released at the beginning of 1982. Thirty-two years later, it still sounds like no other record: it’s either that era’s creepiest, boggiest dance album or its funkiest smear of brittle art-noise.
One axis of the Sextet-era band is Tilson, who’s as odd a vocalist as they could have picked. She’s perpetually lagging behind the beat and beneath the pitches for which she’s reaching, and she swallows her words, as if she’s struggling to repeat them to herself. (Tilson’s an acquired taste as a singer, but awfully distinctive.) Topping’s one major turn on the mic here is similarly strange: “Skipscada”, a two-minute flurry of Brazilian percussion and trilling whistles, on which he scat-sings tunelessly, rolling his R’s with infectious glee.
Meanwhile, Kerr and Johnson are doing their damnedest to play funk as hard as the Sugar Hill Records house band–hitting precise, clipped grooves while their bandmates run interference with haphazardly flung splashes of atonal piano and dissonant horn bleats. “Gum” is produced like a good-time boogie track: Topping and Martin Moscrop’s trumpets tootle out a soul-revue fanfare, Johnson and Kerr punctuate every few lines with get-down flourishes, and the whole band contributes to a samba breakdown. But everything’s out of tune with everything else, and Tilson’s distantly wailing “I’m sorrreeee… I can’t remember your name…” If anyone was waiting for another “Do the Du”, they’d have to keep waiting.
What they’d have been waiting for, actually, was Sextet‘s centerpiece—just not in this form. On the album, “Knife Slits Water” is a seven-and-a-half-minute, two-chord mantra: Kerr works endless variations on a little bass figure as Tilson mutters about sex, her voice doubled by an eerie pitch-displacement effect, and somebody makes a bunch of prickly noise with a kalimba. By the end of 1982, they’d re-record it as a single in the wake of Tilson’s departure, and the terrific and even longer 12-inch version (included here), sung by Johnson, recasts the Sextet version’s uncontrollable tremors as boogie fever.
This new reissue appends a 13-track bonus disc to the original album. Besides the “Knife” 12-inch (and its B-side, a near-instrumental Sugar Hill pastiche with the Kabbalistic title “Kether Hot Knives”), it includes the “Waterline” single that introduced Tilson when it immediately preceded Sextet, a couple of meandering dub experiments the band originally released under the name Sir Horatio, and BBC radio sessions from 1981 and 1982. They all illuminate the band’s curious fascinations and tensions in that period, but Sextet itself—a gorgeous mess, slumped against the back wall of the best dance club in town—is no less mysterious for the illumination.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1GdnZRq