The Once and Future James
So this man arrives in heaven, natty in a white suit coat and shoes shined to glare, and the security guard at the pearly gates greets him with a clipboard and a pen. "Name?"
"James Brown," says the man.
"Yeah, right, and I'm St. Peter."
"My name," the man repeats, "is James Brown."
The guard peers over the rims of his spectacles. "How do I know that you're really James Brown?"
Stepping back, the man lets loose a scarifying screech, after which he spins, splits, and camel walks. Suddenly, the gates begin to close.
"Wait!" cries the man. "What did I do wrong?"
"You can't fool me," says the guard. "James Brown hasn't been able to do that for at least twenty years."
They say every joke contains a grain of truth A that humor, like a pearl, comes from friction -- and it's true that in recent years the funk has sunk for the Godfather of Soul. Once an unstoppable force in American music, James Brown passed through the Eighties as little more than a tower of hair and a series of power-grunts, and even his chart hits ("Living in America") were top-heavy rehash, yesterday's news noising off. Despite the occasional bright spot -- the live-band vibe of 1991's back-from-the-slammer Love Over-Due -- it has sounded for more than a few years now as if Soul Brother Number One might be down for the count. Just don't tell him that. Because Brown is back with his 79th album, Universal James, and once again, the old dog is trying new tricks.
Complete with rocket-man cover art and testimonials from such entertainment luminaries as Bill Cosby, Dick Clark, and the Reverend Al Sharpton (?!), Universal James marks the umpteenth attempt to modernize the James Brown sound. Since Full Force worked on 1988's I'm Real, handling James has become an industry game; hotshot producers try to light Mr. Dynamite's fuse and spark some of the incendiary funk that burned so brightly in the Sixties and Seventies. This year's Young Turks include Robert Clivilles and David Coles of C+C fame, who feed the LP's lead single, "Can't Get Any Harder," into their Music Factory and get back what they deserve A a flat assembly-line tribute by minor-league rappers that falls far short of similar projects such as Miles Davis's Doo-Bop. And as an homage that undercuts its guest of honor, crushing Brown's vocals underneath a load of busy electronic effects, "Can't Get Any Harder" is not only disrespectful, but a textbook lesson in bad production. Where's Teddy Riley when you need him?
Luckily, C+C say "see ya" after a single cut, and most of the album -- six of the ten songs -- is overseen by Soul II Soul's Jazzie B. With Jazzie manning the boards, the results are slightly more heartening. Adhering to a simple recipe A a beat, a horn chart, and a punchy chorus -- the songs succeed as funk, although the nattering drum machines clutter the simple strut of "Mine All Mine" and squander the tasty synth lick of "How Long." Barking for funky drumming isn't the same when you're talking to a microchip.
While it's fun to gripe at technology, it's only fair to note that much of the fault of the Jazzie B tracks lies with Brown himself. Too rough for the smooth production, Brown rips apart the mix. He's no Caron Wheeler, and the music suffers. "Just Do It," an ill-conceived attempt to push him toward the hip hop that he pioneered, is more rasp than rap, and amid the island sounds of the urban lament "How Long," Brown's coruscating growl is ruinous -- he sounds like a man being flayed in a flute factory.
Not surprisingly, when Brown takes the helm himself A three tracks are self-produced and use long-time sidemen A he finds a purer groove. "Everbody's Got a Thang," insubstantial at first, twists tighter around a spidery guitar line until it squeezes out the funk, and "Make it Funky 2000" shouts out with strength. There are even signs that Brown might be maturing gracefully, an interesting proposition for the man who was snarling "Hot pants A Smokin'!" well into his fifties. In the autobiographical mid-tempo number "Georgia-lina," for instance, Brown walks the South in search of self before declaring that he's a "Georgia-lina A raised in Georgia, born in Carolina." If he sometimes trafficks in platitudes ("I found love and I found hate/Got up early stayed out late/Worked real hard paid my dues/Sometimes you win sometimes you lose"), the more compelling lyrics ("I've tasted soil on both sides of the line") have an introspective grace that wouldn't be out of place on a Van Morrison album.
In the end, though, Universal James finds Brown not in space -- outer or inner -- but on shaky ground. Just lend an ear to "Moments," an eight-minute hemorrhage that should have been titled "Say it Loud, I'm Wacky and I'm Proud." Over a Jazzie beat scented with woodwinds, Brown muses on the state of the universe, covering everything from geopolitics to inner city blues. Sermonizing is nothing new for Brown ("King Heroin," "Public Enemy No. 1"), but this time the message is muddled: "Because happiness is only a moment's thought away. Did you hear me? Happiness is only a moment's thought away. When I think of Australia, with their own personal problems. When I think of the United States, suffering. You know what I mean." Yeah, James, we know what you mean. Just don't give us a quiz.
If Universal James finds the Godfather living on a fixed funk income, Soul Pride -- a two-CD set from Polygram's Chronicles reissue series -- reaches back into the Golden Age. Compiled by Harry Weinger (who oversaw the vital Star Time box set) and Alan Leeds, these three dozen vintage instrumentals, which span from 1960 to 1969, are a tour de force of showboat precision, a testament to James as juggernaut.
Brown's bands specialized in a particular kind of funk instrumental, nothing quite as bass-savvy as Sly & The Family Stone's "Sex Machine" or as protoplasmic as Miles Davis's Agharta-era band. With high-altitude horns and rhythm lines stretched tighter than a 6:00 a.m. hamstring, the music is caught halfway between Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers and Booker T & the MGs. Though they are rendered anonymous by the matinee pull of the most famous flame, the myriad players that made up the hardest-working band in show business are stars in their own right, Maceo Parker (tenor sax), Fred Wesley (trombone), Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis (alto sax), St. Clair Pickney (baritone sax), Richard "Kush" Griffith and Waymon Reed (trumpet), Bobby Byrd (organ), and Clyde Stubblefield (drums). And that's only the beginning. With this dream team of players, Brown himself could do what he loved, organ donation, serving Hammond from the shoulder, while his band smoked. Soul Pride plays like a set of snapshots from R&B history. There's Hubert Perry loading up his (Peter) Gunn to walk the bass line of "The Scratch." There's the brass nation deep knee bending for "Limbo Jimbo." There's Brown's noodling notes dueling with Pickney on the half-surf, half-sax "Cross Firing."
For all the majestic timing and exquisite musicianship marshalled here -- this band could stop on a dime, invest it, and compute compound interest before moving on -- the set has its peaks and valleys. Rather generic R&B fare, like "Can You Feel It" or "Soul Food" (with vocals by baritone saxophonist Al "Brisco" Clark) sandbags the impeccable execution, and some of the tracks A versions of Johnny Otis's "Every Beat of My Heart" and Brown's own "Try Me," with organ lines standing in for vocals A are merely leaden. Still, when the outfit cooks, it cooks gourmet, as on the sinuous snake-in-the-brass menace of 1963's "Choo-Choo (Locomotion)" and a trio of excellent Ted Wright compositions that range from the jaunty ("Evil") to the slow-burning ("Infatuation") to the breakneck ("Headache"). As the Wright stuff proves, the band's inconsistency is simply a matter of material; one Miami recording date in February 1966 yielded the visionary funk of "Jabo" (named after drummer John Starks) alongside two far more pedestrian efforts, "Fat Bag" and "Sumpin' Else."
While it's possible to argue that these instrumentals represent Brown's finest work, it's also possible to argue that Oswald acted alone. Honest fans will most likely want to place them in context, as period filler for the killer string of landmark hits Brown threaded through the decade.
The comparisons are illuminating: In 1960, when Brown was charting with the stark rave "Think," his band was moonlighting on the punchy "Hold It." "I Got You (I Feel Good)" heated up 1966 alongside "Jabo." And the shattering 1967 landmark "Cold Sweat" lines up with the dense, polyrhythmic "Gittin' A Little Hipper." As the Sixties shut down, Brown's sidemen were not only geting hipper, but getting funkier. And funkier and funkier. By the end of the decade, the word was spreading quickly -- George Clinton had revamped his New Jersey doo-wop quintet The Parliaments for Funkadelicism, Jimi Hendrix was collecting his Gypsies, and Sly Stone was getting familiar in the Bay Area. But James Brown still wore the signet ring, as Soul Pride proves again and again, with a searing 1968 concert performance of Archie Bell and the Drells' "Tighten Up" sizzling alongside such classics as "The Popcorn," "In the Middle, Pt. 1," "Soul Pride," and "Top of the Stack." Smart, snaky, and impossible to duplicate -- you try sync-stepping in a tuxedo -- these songs plant the seeds for Primus and Prince, Hammer and Liquid Hips, Mandrill and Steve Coleman, and just about everyone else.
Of course, this warm and fuzzy pluralism -- congrats all around -- doesn't mean there wasn't a frontman, or that that frontman wasn't the franchise, and the strongest tracks in this instrumental collection are those where JB makes his vocal presence felt. At first listen, these hardly seem like instrumentals at all: What about all that combustible screeching on the mid-decade concert staple "Devil's Den"? And what about the last two songs, "Make it Funky" and a rediscovered re-mix of "Funky Drummer" (complete with a time-keeping tambourine on the right side of the mix)? Well, maybe we journalists are especially suggestible, but in an instrumental context Brown's very voice starts to sound, well, instrumental. Using words as beat notches, Brown tosses phrases like a drill sergeant on the lam from the syntax police, "Bring on the juice," "Turn it over," "Turn it loose," and the ever-popular "Mashed potatoes if you want 'em." As any non-English speaking funkateer will tell you, James Brown is the universal language: he's the interpretive link between Elvis and Fela, running a circuit from rhythm to rhyme, and from rhyme to reason. He translates himself.
Brown's monumentality had a downside. In addition to the Draconian discipline, C-note fines slapped down for scuffed Oxfords A the Godfather was getting bigger and bigger, and making musical forays without his band. Egos bruised, tempers flared, and in 1969 Ellis and Pickney jumped ship, with the rest of the band soon following. Though the intervening years have patched things up, Soul Pride and Universal James, so different in many respects, at least agree on one sad truth: What's past is past. Or, as Brown himself once sang, "There was a time."
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