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.

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Ben Greenman