James Brown, the godfather of funk, has just released two greatest hits collections: "The Best of James Brown" (Polydor PD-1-6340) and "Can Your Heart Stand It!!" (Solid Smoke SS-8013). Only four songs overlap, but the latter album con Records tains the older songs and the longer, more definitive versions, including seven delirious minutes of "Cold Sweat." The two albums' 17 songs from 1956 to 1975 are the essential historic models for funk, the genre that now dominates black pop music.
Sly Stone, the crown prince of funk, combined Brown's grunting soul and progressive rock 'n' roll into modern funk. Stone's 20 best songs from 1968 to 1974 are collected on a new two-record set: Sly & the Family Stone's "Anthology" (Epic E2 37071). It's arguably the most potent collection of dance music ever assembled. Prince is funk's heir apparent; his new album, "Controversy" (Warner Bros. BSK 3601), recaptures the sinuous groove and exhilarating release of vintage Family Stone.
Sly Stone himself made a modest comeback this year with an appearance on Funkadelic's "The Electric Spanking of War Babies" (Warner Bros. BSK 3482). It was an album full of good, versatile music, but without a truly outstanding track. George Clinton, the Uncle Jam of the funk family tree, is the leader of Parliament/Funkadelic and their innumerable spinoff acts. The latest spinoff is Godmoma, a female vocal trio whose debut album, "Here" (Elektra 5E-552), was produced by Clinton's sidekick, Bootsy Collins. The three Detroit women have old-fashioned, gospel-trained soul voices, but Collins' complex arrangements direct those crisscrossing voices and the funk big band to bounce off the same heavy beat in a dozen different directions. Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker -- horn players for Brown and Parliament -- pump up "Hands Up." On three different songs, the singers pull off the difficult task of singing a slow, steamy ballad without losing the funk beat.
Less successful is another P-Funk spinoff, Roger Troutman, whose self-produced debut solo album is: "The Many Facets of Roger" (Warner Bros. BSK 3594). He's part of Dayton's Troutman family, who recorded last year as Zapp. Roger Troutman so overuses his monotonous synthesizer riffs and vocorder vocals that the album becomes as boring as any recent Herbie Hancock record. The music only wakes up when Carl Cowan takes a sax solo. Another P-Funk alumnus, Walter "Junie" Morrison, has released an excellent solo album, "Junie 5" (Columbia ARC 37133). The eight songs written by backing singer Teresa Allman are full of hummable Stevie Wonderish melodies, to which Morrison adds a steady funk groove, warm vocals and scintillating synthesizer textures.
Two more funk bands, Brick and Slave, will appear at the Capital Centre tonight. Brick's fourth album, "Summer Heat" (Bang FZ37471), is their first with producer Ray "Raydio" Parker Jr. The record starts off with a spectacular dance number, "Sweat (till you get wet)," but then the album loses the funk and fades out into bland Commodores-style pop. This Atlanta quintet just doesn't write strong enough melodies to pull off "listening songs." Much stronger is Slave's latest album, "Show Time" (Cotillion SD 5227). This Dayton band writes strong melodies and plays riveting funk rhythms. More important, they manage to construct lush harmonies without obscuring the big beat. Whispering vocals, overlapping synthesizers, disciplined horns and unusually funky strings shimmer behind the catchy foreground of each song. "Show Time" is one of the year's best funk records.
Almost as good are the new albums from Con Funk Shun and the Bar-Kays, two of the most consistent bands in funk. Con Funk Shun's "7" (Mercury SRM-1-4030) reveals how much this San Francisco septet has matured over seven albums. They still play very danceable party music, but the sound has been refined into a seamless whole. The three horns, two keyboards and seven voices slide effortlessly around the thumping back beat with never a transition exposed. Co-leader Felton Pilate writes strong melodies and rhythm tracks, which provide lots of room for the rest of the band. The title track to the Bar-Kays' "Nightcruisin' " (Mercury SRM-1-4028) is powered by sharp unison turns from the band's three-man horn section. Winston Stewart's bubbly synthesizer phrases capture the P-Funk bounce that keeps the funk right-footed. This Memphis band has survived since its days as Otis Redding's backup band with its no-nonsense approach to dance music intact.
By contrast, Kool & the Gang seem to have lost their way. Just as Earth, Wind & Fire lapsed last year with "Faces," so Kool & the Gang have deserved hard-core funk for polite pop-funk on this year's "Something Special" (De-Lite, DSR 8502). This New Jersey band's 18th album slows the pace, lightens the beat and smooths the arrangements until all the fun has been sapped out of the funk. There's little to dance to on this album, and little to care about.
Perhaps this year's heaviest dose of funk came on Hamilton Bohannon's "Alive" (Phase II FZ 37699). Like James Brown, Bohannon scarcely bothers with melody. Instead he gears everything to a crashing, throbbing, grinding syncopation till it becomes hypnotic. When he falls short of hypnotism, his records can be quite boring, but when he succeeds -- as he does so admirably on "Alive" -- no music is more danceable. On "Alive," this former Motown band leader is joined by the top funk horn team of Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker (who enliven "Take the Country to New York City") and by rap singer, Dr. Perri Johnson (who dominates the irresistible hit single, "Let's Start II Dance Again"). Funk is music for the pelvis, and Bohannon has lowered his goals to the appropriate level