1970, Music

Sex Machine (1970) by James Brown

One of the things you discover when you start wading into Jame’s Brown’s immense discography is that there is just so much stuff; it is kind of overwhelming and very hard to really evaluate. Is record 15 way better than record 25 or record 35 or record 45 or record 55? Who’s listened to even a quarter of these albums? Only the truly dedicated fan. every time I encounter his records I am only more convinced that the Boxed Set is the way to go for the vast majority of people, even if he’s one of the handful of most important musicians of the second half of the 20th century. (The others being, in no particular order: The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, maybe Ornette Coleman, Bob Dylan, Phillip Glass, maybe Brian Eno, and some hip hop pioneer I’ve never heard of.)

Can I get to the review? Should I get to the review? Is it alright if I got to the review?

This album, half a fake live album, half a real live album, is considered by some to be his apex. I have no idea if that’s true or not, obviously. This is only my third or fourth James Brown album, if memory serves.

The faux live half really isn’t anywhere near as bad as it sounds – the crowd noise is sporadic and mixed pretty low (at least on the digital version I’m listening to). You can easily forget it’s faux live. And it’s mostly a pretty good example of James Brown’s sound, you might even say James Brown at his peak. I will say that this version of “Sex Machine” is entirely too long. Especially since my favourite part, the piano break, happens once in 11 minutes. But, on the whole, if you want to know why James Brown is so important and captivating, you could do a whole lot worse than listening to the first half of this record.

The second half is really live and shows off Brown as a performer. It’s funkier than Live at the Apollo because, of course, in between these two records James Brown invented funk music. Given that I prefer funky James Brown to soul James Brown, this is an improvement for me but there is a little bit of an overlap in tracks. For me, though, what this live half really cements is my impression from Live at the Apollo: Brown was a dynamic performer who was likely much, much more compelling in person. I like a certain kind of live performance in general but, especially, when I’m listening on record, and James Brown doesn’t deliver that. (What I’m saying is I like instrumental improvisation.) Instead, he does his thing, very well rehearsed but full of his uncontainable energy. But neither this nor Live at the Apollo stand out to me as among the great live albums because they lack that thing I want most. It’s likely different for you.

This is the sound of someone who knows what he wants to do and does it extremely well. I’d still rather listen to “the hits” or something that isn’t 65 minutes long. And I have no idea whether or not this is the “best” James Brown album. (How could I?) But, if you must listen to his individual albums instead of Star Time, this is probably a pretty good place to start.


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