Review ·

It's either a freaky coincidence or obvious copycatting, but Soul Jazz either already is or is rapidly becoming the modern-day Factory Records. Obvious similarities abound. Factory had its dance club, the Hacienda. Soul Jazz has 100% Dynamite. Factory hired a young Peter Saville for their sleeve and poster art, and he produced a series of beautiful, cohesive and budget-busting designs for Factory's early roster -- Joy Division, OMD, A Certain Ratio, Section 25, Durutti Column and later, New Order. Soul Jazz is embarking on a similarly lavish design campaign, emphasizing spare graphics, retro fonts, fancy (and unnecessary) CD jackets and elegant use of duotone colors.

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And it lulls you right to sleep. Soul Jazz's records look so good, you can't help but cut them some slack. So when they don't sound great, like the new (and yes, nicely designed) single by the British electro band Bell doesn't, you find yourself making excuses.

The Rhythm Machine single is Bell's first recording for Soul Jazz, following a debut LP released in 2000. Both the repetitively pounding beat and robotic voice are clearly inspired by Electric Cafe-era Kraftwerk, but maybe Bell is just calling attention to the brainless appropriation so ubiquitous in contemporary electronic music. The percussive layering is completely predictable, but maybe Bell is mocking the now stale-sounding layering patterns of British techno. The music's vocalessness makes you concentrate even harder on the mundane beats and synths, but maybe that's Bell's sarcastic intention.

The cryptically-titled B-side, "Rist11A4," is also too obvious with its influences, sounding like a futuristic A Certain Ratio, but maybe that's their mockery of the very New York phenomenon of sounding just like your favorite hip No Wave or punk-funk band. Or is it possible that this slew of apologias is to give Bell, and Soul Jazz, too much credit?

To categorically say so would be an overreaction. Over the past few years, Soul Jazz has established itself as a one of the top labels specializing in re-releases. Not only are their retro picks unfailingly cool, they also constitute an impressively broad musical reach, from early Jamaican reggae to New Orleans funk to British post-punk. On top of that, they recently released ESG's great new album Step Off, their first new LP in 10 years. So one would hope that these powers of discernment could lead to a small roster of dynamic new electro, funk, hip-hop and soul that treads bravely down the path of music's future, instead of returning to its past. Rhythm Machine doesn't exactly signal auspicious beginnings, but given Soul Jazz's credible track record, they shouldn't be discounted quite yet.

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