Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

James Brown: Star Time [Polydor, 1991]
Canonizing as they commodify, CD boxes sever individual works from history. They obscure how albums as much as singles reflect cultural moments as well as formal imperatives and personal impulses, and rarely are their remixes, B sides, and previously unreleaseds more enlightening or entertaining than the album tracks they supplant. Redefining as it compiles, this is the great exception. The "songs" are all familiar, but with Brown, songs are only an excuse. Though his catalogue conceals a ballad album that could scare the shades off Ray Charles, with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" he discovered the deepest of his many callings, which was putting rhythm on top of American pop. Hence there's no excess in the many extended performances compilers Harry Weinger and Cliff White extract from the vault. Except perhaps on the first disc, which strains to provide the originals of songs known to most of us from their once-overs on "Live" at the Apollo, the five hours of music never falter. Only one question remains. If James Brown is the greatest popular musician of the era, how come he's never put out an album this convincing himself--not even Sex Machine? Does he know something about records that we don't? Is it possible they're not so important after all? A+