Friday, December 9, 2011

James Brown - Hell

One of the popular music phenomena that most fascinates me is when an artist (almost always in conjunction with a label) attempts to recreate a successful album with a follow-up that attempts to in some way recreate the magic of its predecessor.  Harry Nilsson's Son of Schmilsson is definitely one of those albums, but his willful merry prankster approach seems a deliberate (and artistically sound) attempt to undermine his label's hopes for a repeat hit album in comparison with this, James Brown's rapid-fire follow-up to his early '74 hit The Payback.  Sure, it's not an attempt to completely duplicate The Payback's 20 minute grooves, but the fact that it's another double album with a bunch of indelibly funky jams interspersed with a bizarre and jarring segue (this time it's a blaring gong instead of a bunch of background singers going "zzzzzzzoooooo!") makes the comparison inevitable.

If anything, Hell is probably best described as an overreach.  While the quality of the funk is indisputable on tracks like "Coldblooded" and the title track's chainsaw delivery, it's easy to get the sense that the stripped-down essence of Brown's earlier funk masterpieces has become lost in a proliferation of instruments and experiments in eclecticism.  For example, there's the bizarre Latin treatment of the early Brown hit "Please Please Please," immediately followed by the even more bizarre funk-cum-proto-disco treatment of "When the Saints Go Marching In" (which finds Brown pleading cringe-worthily to be "in that funky number").  There are less egregious offenses, like the awkward attempt to update the blues classic "Stormy Monday" and an uncomfortably slick and square update of another classic pre-funk Brown tune in "I Lost Someone" (don't worry, you won't be inspired to throw away your copy of Live at the Apollo).  And then again, there are some guilt free moments in the Parliament-esque (and huge mouthful) "Dont' Tell A Lie About Me and I Won't Tell the Truth About You" and the ideologically confused but utterly on-the-one "Sayin' and Doin' It" (the CD reissue liner notes' attempts to credit Brown with social awareness on the level of What's Going On or Curtis based purely on "Hell," the cover art and a couple other tracks are valiant but laughable).  When the time comes for Brown and his crew to stretch out into some longform funky jams, the results are both tight ("I Can't Stand It") and solid but strangely ho-hum ("Papa Don't Take No Mess"), but never sounding quite as natural as the long tracks on The Payback.

When it comes to assessing the overall strength of this album, it's easy to pick holes in its particular (and ultimately relative) failures, but what keeps me coming back is the experimentation and, of course, Brown's ability to use his voice as an inimitable instrument even when singing the most inane nonsensicalities imaginable.  As I've probably said before, hearing someone try and fail at something uncharacteristic can often be just as rewarding as hearing them succeed at what they already do best.  Brown and company's attempt to prolong the hit magic may not be a complete artistic success, but at this point in his career (as evidenced below) he was on such a roll that any 80 minute double album was guaranteed to at least get your booty shaking--and that's always been the point, right?

Get it here.

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