We encountered Caribou and their Rough-Trade-album-of-the year, ‘Swim’, earlier (see ABON 0120). ‘Swim’ is a wonderfully original mixture of thought-provoking ideas and left field dance rhythms. Written and performed by a genuine Dr of Mathematics, it - very appropriately you may think – sets out to prove that music can make you dance and think at the same time.
Whilst it’s not the first record to do that, ‘Swim’ doesn’t have many obvious historical reference points. In fact it doesn’t sound much like anything that has gone before.
Except of course for A Certain Ratio’s early Post-Punk icey Funk.
ACR started in Manchester in the immediate aftermath of the Punk eruption. By 1980 they’d signed, alongside Joy Division, to Factory Records and released the, cassette-only, 50% live, 50% studio, but 100% mould-breaking, ‘The Graveyard And The Ballroom’ album. By 1982 they’d recruited female singer, Martha Tilson and refined their unique sound on the album, ‘Sextet’.
And in doing so they’d managed to create a music that was, paradoxically perhaps, funkier than most of that produced by the other British so-called Post-Punk ‘Funk’ bands, whilst simultaneously also being drained of most of the life and spirit that Black Funk had always been renowned for.
But if they’d lost some of the humanity of 70s Funk, then their unique brand of Funk (Post-Funk?) was – just like Caribou’s, 28 years later – always full of thought-provoking ideas and genuinely left-field but strangely danceable rhythms.
‘Knife Slits Water’ is typical of their early blood-less Funk.
A repetitive, icy, grey, chill of a beat over which…no not quite right…in amongst which singer Martha Tilson scatters a series of often unintelligible, but still spookily disturbing, mutterings and moanings. Almost like a dismembered voice from beyond the grave at a séance.
Which is perfectly fitting because the drums also seem to have died at some point. With the space typically filled by the drums left empty. Instead all we hear is what sounds like the ghostly echo of the now departed drums bouncing off the walls around the vacant, hollow space they once occupied.
And if the drums are dead then surely it was the only thing that still sounds alive on the track – the (fretless?) bass – that killed them. Bassist, Jeremy Kerr, somehow manages to make what could have sounded like a bad day at the Level 42 studio, sound more like something nasty coming squelching along unseen, but definitely heard, in a dark cave, having already digested the drum-kit.
And then, as a final touch. someone seems to be scraping what could be a blunt knife against a wooden ouija board in the background just for good measure.
ACR were there at the beginning of Post-Punk and over the years have become very influential. But the darkness and deliberately constricted, almost choked, nature of their sound meant that they were never going to be big in their own time. And they weren’t. In search of greater commercial success they gradually ‘normalised’ and expanded their sound throughout the late 80s and beyond. As a result they became less unique and interesting.
But for a brief period, from 1980 to 1982, they looked like they were capable of turning almost anything - no matter how dark and brooding the subject matter – into a can’t-stop-your-feet-tapping Post-Funk masterpiece. Just like Caribou have managed to do in their dissection of relationship disintegration on ‘Swim’.
There must have been something in the water in the very early 80s because I could highlight many other funky pieces of Post-Punk experimentation from exactly the same period. For example, David Byrne and Brian Eno were doing very similar - if slightly livelier - things with repetitive rhythms and, in their case, exorcisms lifted from religious radio stations (see ABON 0064 ). Whilst in NYC, ESG were developing their own equally wonderful and almost-as-anaemic version of Post-Funk by slowing down the tempo and exaggerating the depth of the bass in a style that drew from Dub Reggae as much as it did from Funkadelic or Parliament.
As a mathematician though, maybe it’s no great surprise that Caribou’s Dr Daniel Snaith’s primary inspiration for the sound on ‘Swim’ seems to have come not from these other Post-Punk, Post-Funk bands but directly from A Certain Ratio.