A Certain Ratio has been compared to a number of other bands, from Joy Division to post-punk/dance hybrids like New Order, ESG, and Liquid Liquid. Based on some of the band’s early tracks, the Joy Division comparison is valid. That shouldn’t be too surprising; after all, the two bands shared a hometown (Manchester, England) and a label (Factory Records) and on tracks like “Do the Du”, A Certain Ratio vocalist Simon Topping is a dead ringer for Ian Curtis. More fitting, though, are the latter comparisons, which root A Certain Ratio firmly in the pioneering, genre-mixing wave of bands that led the way for the dance-oriented artists of the ’80s. While the latest reissue of Live America 1985, recorded on cassette when the band was opening for New Order on the East Coast and in Canada, captures those sides of the band, it sometimes casts A Certain Ratio in yet another light, showing how the band’s incorporation of horns and percussion led it into lite funk and jazz territory.
It’s debatable whether this means the band was ambitious or just directionless; personally, I’d vote for the latter. A Certain Ratio had already gone through a number of lineup changes by the time of this live recording; most notably, vocalist Simon Topping was out (it’s unclear who handles vocals on the tracks included here, as the liner notes do not provide personnel information). Just as importantly, the band added saxophone player Tony Quigley, who plays a prominent role in the sound of Live.
The song selection draws from various albums, EPs, and singles, touching on the band’s varied influences. “Flight” (culled from 1980’s cassette-only The Graveyard and the Ballroom) and “And Then Again” call up the Joy Division/New Order comparisons, and, while enjoyable, do sound a bit watered down and derivative. “The Fox”, “Touch”, and “Wild Party” find A Certain Ratio exploring American funk, although a rather frothy version. Still, “Knife Slits Water” has an interesting keyboard bounce at the start and some chunky, Chic-inspired bass lines. Of the lite funk romps, “Life’s a Scream” and the cover of Banbarra’s “Shack Up” are the most fun. Light, silly, and eminently danceable, these songs bring a (perhaps) less flattering comparison to mind: KC and the Sunshine Band. They also feature some boss scratchy guitar sounds, although the vocals leave something to be desired in the sex appeal department.
The worst song has to be the opener, “Sounds Like Something Dirty”. It does sound like something dirty: a big pile of garbage. Here A Certain Ratio crosses the line and veers recklessly into lame Kenny G. lite jazz territory. The band’s jazz experiments work somewhat better on the closer “Si Fermir o Grido”, which would appear on the album Force a year after Live was recorded. A seven-minute Latin jazz jam, the song finds the band using keyboards to give its sound a modern edge, although it’s not entirely successful.
Live does an adequate job of hitting on A Certain Ratio’s various styles, but the songs within those styles don’t vary much. At 10 tracks, Live feels a lot longer, even though — rather oddly for a live album — there are no crowd sounds to interrupt the proceedings.