If James didn’t single-handedly change the face of pop music by moving rhythm to the forefront he was at the very least one of the primary exponents in doing so and this collection helps display many of his finest dance grooves from one of his most creative periods. The collection covers only a scant year and a half or so – September 1969 through July 1971 – and marks his transition from balladeer and dancer extraordinaire to Sex Machine (a song recorded during this period, but not on this collection). And if you’re a fan of that song – or of any funk from the era – and don't have this, you're missing out. This is, for me, the definition of funk – or at least one of them, with perhaps Sly Stone’s work right alongside it and Parliament-Funkadelic around this time writing a new chapter of slower, spaced-out grooves.
Everything here is a full-length dance floor workout – discounting the DJ-friendly "Bonus Beats" reprise of one song, the shortest song clocks in at 6:09 while the longest is a magnificent 9:13 of "Funky Drummer," possibly the single most sampled song of all time due to its famous drum break (you’ll know it when you hear it). But from the seemingly effortless screams James unleashes – sometimes as punctuation, sometimes held back to a climactic moment of a song – to the irrepressible groove created by the rhythm section (variously held down by bassists Bootsy Collins or Sweet Charles and drummers Clyde Stubblefield or Jabo Starks or Melvin Parker) to the intertwined guitars scratching out the rhythm to the horns playing patterns and sometimes solos over the rhythmic beast they’ve created, this music always moves with a single-minded purpose – and that’s to move your feet.
For those who think that dance music and pop are a young man’s game, you should note that Brown was 36 when the earliest of these cuts was laid down and had been sharpening his recording work since his debut in 1956, constantly changing and refining his work. It’s startling to hear how far he’d come even since the famed revue-style recording of Live at the Apollo in 1962, but this era marked a period of creative flow that he’d rarely equal. Of course, these songs aren’t the first one where he staked a claim on an irresistible groove, 1965's “Papa's Got A Brand New Bag” is certainly a precursor, and by 1967's “Cold Sweat” he'd made a definitive turn toward this style of music dominating his output, laying down extended works in the studio that only sometimes found their ways to albums at their full strength – hence the added necessity of this invaluable compilation. It’s a bias of rock-centric thinking that albums are the only format worth attending – when the music is this good, who cares how it finds its way out, as long as it does? Be sure to attend to the highlights – “It's A Brand New Day” kicks things off, leading into the legendary “Funky Drummer” and the simply great “Give It Up Or Turn It A Loose.” Later, we’re treated to the anthem "Get Up, Get Into it and Get Involved" and the salacious (and terrific) "Hot Pants (She Got To Use What She Got To Get What She Wants)." But everything here kills it, from beginning to end, and even the “Bonus Beats” are fun if you’re on the dance floor – you won’t mind hearing them again.
- Patrick Brown