Friday, August 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "Hell" by James Brown


I originally wanted to do The Payback, James Brown's mid-seventies double would-be soundtrack. I balked at a double-album that featured only eight tracks of lengthy, dragging funk epics (two a side) and decided instead to go for Hell, the much more varied but also much more inconsistent follow-up. I'm not really sure I made the right choice, to tell the truth.

Retrospect changes things. We look back on James Brown's incredibly prolific decades-long career as largely the story of a gifted auteur who made one single lasting contribution to popular music: his development and refinement, if not the very creation, of funk music into an art form.

I think this is the right way to view him, really - his funk songs are his best songs, and many of the best funk songs out there are James Brown songs. A single-disc 'introduction to James Brown' compilation would be very heavy on funk numbers. It might exclusively consist of funk numbers.

But this is not how James Brown himself ever saw his career. Sure, he was the Godfather. But he was also 'the hardest working man in show business', one who prided himself on stage shows that were well-rounded performances, not just 90 minutes of funk. His actual recording career, which as the sixties became the seventies became so ridiculously prolific that he averaged a new album every eight weeks, is much, much more varied than that: there's plenty of soul, but also a lot of jazz and a lot of 'pops' standards stuff and even blues too. Pretty much the entire range of 'black American music'.

I don't know much about it, but I suspect that Hell was compiled as a double-length studio replication of his then-current live performances. While there are plenty of funk workouts, there is also a distinct emphasis on diversity, with a good number of slicker ballads and a curiously forward-looking pseudo disco sound before the disco era had even begun (though it didn't stick, 'the Original Disco Man' was another self-applied Brown sobriquet) - all programmed with a distinctly concert-like sense of flow. More than half of the tracks on this double-disc are either covers or remakes of his own songs, which might suggest a dearth of inspiration but could also be part of the 'concert experience replication' I speculate Brown might have had in mind. Alternately, it could be an attempt to go back, like jazz musicians frequently would, to previous glories to see what the passing of years has brought to them. Some are finer in their remade versions, almost none are embarrassments.

For no good reason that I can think of, all of the tracks on any given side of this four-sided album are linked together with the same five-second recording of a Chinese-style gong. So as one track fades out, you hear that metallic crash again and again before the following track starts. On the CD, the sample is programmed at the beginning of each song in question, meaning ten of these fourteen tracks start exactly the same way. It's a bit annoying, and obviously my single-length programming of this will thus have gong smashes in the oddest of places. Ignore them, or imagine that my single-disc version edits them out.

I will admit, though, that all told Hell stands out less as a crucial statement than as a competent water-treading exercise, released perhaps because he had an available stockpile of material sitting on the shelf. Released perhaps because he needed the money. It's not a major statement - it's a schizophrenic and at times bland piece of work. But, whittled down appropriately, it becomes a much worthier piece of work. And - hey! - that's exactly what I do here.

Hell

Side one
  1. My Thang (4:20)
  2. Sayin' it and Doin' it (3:05)
  3. I Can't Stand It '76 (8:10)
  4. These Foolish Things Remind Me of You (3:05)
Side two
  1. Coldblooded (4:45)
  2. Papa Don't Take No Mess (13:51)
The box below contains the entire contents of my single-disc version of this album, hosted by YouTube. Click on the box itself to reveal the scrollbars, and click on any of the scrollbars to hear the music.

» Hell, Single-Disc Version «


Coldblooded: keep (side two, track one)

An odd choice of opening track, this little ditty consists of a handful of different grooves crudely welded together. There's a lot of brass going on here, some lovely guitar lines, and all kinds of strangely creaking percussion. It's all quite nice, if the end result is a bit confusing. It doesn't really have anything that you can walk away humming. It's a 'showpiece', and as such it's more for appreciating and admiring than for truly grooving to. No wonder such an oddball piece wasn't a single, and why it's on no-one's James Brown shortlist. But it's quite enjoyable nonetheless.

Though this is worthy of inclusion, I don't think it's a great album-starter. Instead, I've let it start off side two instead of side one.

Hell: lose

Hell is a pretty cool name for an album, I suppose. So I suspect that it was the fortune of having such an attention-grabbing name available, rather than any particular virtues in its content, that led to this particular song taking the mantle of 'title track'. I've heard this song described as 'kitschy', and unfortunately it really is, over-busy and messy, with over-the-top female vocalists and with a capella grunting - an acquired taste to be sure. He doesn't have as much to say as he might think he does, and the truth is that this track is a disappointment as a title track.

My Thang: keep (side one, track one)

The most valid criticism you could throw at James Brown-style funk is that it far too frequently builds a decent groove and them merely rides it for a few minutes before fading out. People who like tension and release, or who like coherent verses and choruses, can find funk music horribly boring. But funk music is music to be felt, not to be analysed. In the particular case of this song, it's not merely a 'decent' groove but an amazing monster of a groove, a thing worthy of awe. After that, Brown's vocals and the background vocalists are merely more percussion, really. Everything here is in service of the groove, and the groove is in service of nothing except itself. It's a dynamic that is really pretty alien by popular music standards, which is probably why funk has crossed over as rarely as it has. But make no mistake: this is fabulous, fabulous stuff, music for the soul, cleansing and cathartic. This is why James Brown was one of music's greats, and why the R&B charts loved this song enough to take it all the way to number one.

It's not just because it's cool to start and end an album with number-one singles... I mean, this was a number-one single because it's a great song, filled with self-confidence and an uptempo 'statement of purpose'. Look at its name, and look at its opening claim of 'a brand new funk'. It's a hell of a way to open an album. Why didn't James?

Sayin' It and Doin' It: keep (side one, track two)

This is less a cover version of sidekick Bobby Byrd's recent single with the same title than a new composition built out of the same base materials. Seeing a James Brown funk song as propulsive as this one clock in at barely three minutes is pretty radical by 1976, but this is really a very successful take on pop-funk, a fun-as-hell sermon with Lyn Collins as an effective foil singing a single sentence in response to James's constant dress-length requests. It's strange, but it's pretty brilliant stuff nonetheless.

Keeping the back-to-back... two shorter uptempo funk tracks in a row, the two 'commercial highlights' of the album in all probability. I love them both to bits. Track two here.

Please, Please, Please: lose

God knows how many times James had sung this song by 1974 (by which time it was amazingly already almost 20 years old). Here the excuse is that he gives it a Latin gloss evocative of Cuba - or at least evocative of American attempts to evoke Cuba. He struts his stuff quite well, really - seeming quite at home in the idiom of his 'brown brothers' (in his own words), but outside of being a semi-intriguing museum curio, it's tough to know what exactly the point is, except showing off.

When the Saints Go Marchin' In: lose

Yes, this is James Brown taking on the New Orleans brass-band classic. It's not a funk take on the hoary old standby but something even odder: a kind of sleek proto-disco take on it as sing by James Brown. Side two of the disc was produced by a different producer and presents an oddly slick and funkless side of James Brown. It's intriguing but not entirely successful - which is exactly what you can say about the side's opening track. While it's interesting as a novelty, ultimately a disco-esque take on "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" has precisely as much staying power as you'd figure it would.

These Foolish Things Remind Me of You: keep (side one, track four)

The emphasis on the funk side of James's musical legacy means one particular fact of James Brown is slowly being airbrushed out of the picture: the man had a hell of a voice. He wraps his warm, personable and oddly feminine voice around this pre-rock standby so definitively that for a few minutes you can convince yourself that it's not a cover at all but a pure James Brown song - and you can also, if you try harder, convince yourself that this genre had anything to do with his musical legacy. It doesn't, of course, as much as he peppered his dense album catalogue with genre experiments. But in this particular case, he's chosen a composition that merits the slick studio-crafted sound of this album's second side, with the result that those strings and that female vocal chorus don't stick out; they fit in smoothly, as if they always belonged here. All told, a remarkable accomplishment on an old classic, even if it has nothing to do with how we remember James Brown today.

I should confess that I was undecided between this and 'Crossroads', or between these two and not including any non-funk tracks whatsoever. But I think it's worth having one soul track, and this is the best one, in my opinion, even if it sits a bit strangely next to its funky kin. I know where I usually put downtempo songs here, but side one track four is a mere practical consideration - not to break the flow of a single album side, I stick it at the end of one of the sides. What else can I do?

Stormy Monday: lose

Caked in fat wah-wah guitar lines and floating on a bed of the finest 1970s strings, even with a flute straight out of Van McCoy's 'The Hustle', this is proto-disco as its most prescient. All it really needs to fit like a glove on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is that insistent 'disco beat' beneath it. Oddly enough, as it turns out, under all the skillful era-specific accoutrements lies a rather weak beat, supporting a not-overly-interesting take on a days-of-the-week old standard.

A Man Has to Go Back to the Crossroad Before He Finds Himself: lose

Another of his old standards, a showstopping weeper done up in the style of side two - it's a naturally earthy song buried under the studio gloss of the rest of this side. It's Atlantic as recorded by Motown, and while it's quite pretty, the essential dichotomy never really gets resolved. Best just to sit back and reflect on the beauty without thinking too much on it.

Sometime: lose

'Sometime' brings side two to a finish in a relatively nondescript fashion. I don't know if this is a remake too or if it's a rare new song - tough to tell either way because it's pretty generic and unimpressive. It's not an embarrassment, but it does nothing that hasn't already been done several times on this side, barring a rather pretty instrumental figure about two minutes in. Not much to hang a hat on, though.

I Can't Stand It '76: keep (side one, track three)

Technically, this is a remake of Brown's late-sixties hit 'I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)'. But while that earlier recording was very much a proper song designed for AM, unusually percussive but otherwise very much in the 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag' mould, this later rerecording shows the signs of years of precision roadwork behind it. By now Brown could care less about verse and chorus and merely wants to lead the band through an eight-minute jam based on the song. It's compelling as hell, because the groove is as hard as this album gets and the band are almost supernaturally empathetic. The bass is the lead instrument, and the drums kick out the groove unrelentingly for over eight minutes. You might question the need to get this down on vinyl in the studio, but perhaps it's better to view Brown as something like a jazz performer at this point, constantly revisiting older works to present them in newer contexts. This has zero commercial appeal, but it's still pretty great.

In other circumstances, I'd have let this end side one, letting both sides finish with epics. But it doesn't make sense, so with 'These Foolish Things' ending this side, these eight minutes wind up as the third track in four on side one.

Lost Someone (Remake): lose

And suddenly we're back to midtempo, feeling a little like side two though a little more down-to-earth. But it seems like a strange programming decision to step back across that soul/funk divide just one song after crossing it. This song bears the subtitle '(Remake)', which is strange seeing as how the majority of this album is one kind of remake or another - in this particular case the original is from 1961, not as old as 'Please, Please, Please' but still pretty ancient. The song cooks up a pretty decent groove, and it's got another impressively animated bassline. But it doesn't really move the soul.

Don't Tell a Lie About Me and I Won't Tell the Truth on You: lose

If a great title made a great song, this would be one of history's best. The one-liner isn't James Brown's invention but it certainly does make for an attention-grabbing title. Unfortunately, that's all the composition that went into the song, as the vocal performance he and his backup singers makes here consists of little more than that title riffed on over and over again. The groove is pretty down-to-earth, laid-back and down-home though overdubbed with some trebly synth and some odd percussion. But it's too knocked-off, all told. And it sounds markedly similar to the superior song that follows it immediately (on CD).

Papa Don't Take No Mess: keep (side two, track two)

This was written for, and rejected from, the same movie as 'The Payback', indicating that the producer of that movie had a tin ear of monumental proportions. It also indicates that this, Hell's centrepiece, was a leftover outtake. How could something like this have been left on the shelves? Especially considering it was to be a number one hit as a seven-inch single, Brown's last-ever number one. In this light, it's perhaps a culmination of his late-sixties and early-seventies body of work. What it is, undoubtedly, is a massive accomplishment, a fourteen-minute epic that is completely compelling throughout, as Brown deftly guides his band through rises and falls, verses, solos and moments to step back, breathe and bask in the groove they've created. This is improvisational music at its finest, but it's also one of the more complete 'songs' on this album, taking five and a half minutes before the solos break out, starting with a lengthy one from the master himself on piano. Lyrically, it's a testament to his father's unsentimental approach to discipline that at times seems tasteless by modern standards ('When we did wrong, Papa beat the hell out of us'?). Still, it brings out genuine feeling in Brown, who screams and grunts his way throughout. This works the same sluggish tempo and profound groove as its sister 'The Payback', but is a little less dark (musically, if not lyrically). Overwrought? Perhaps. Perhaps it doesn't quite need to be fourteen minutes long. But at the same time, it could have been twenty-five minutes, too. It doesn't really need to end, especially since as it comes to a close, so does James Brown's position as a cutting-edge taste-maker.

Where else but the very end would I put this epic mother of a track?

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