JAMES BROWN

"The Next Step"

Fome

"The Next Step" proves that sometimes even James Brown, the hardest-working man in show business, has a hard time making things work out just right in the studio. Or in this case, two studios. The Godfather of Soul's first album in four years addresses topical issues and points to hip-hop influences, but it sounds so digitally sanitized, so far removed from his legendary stage shows and landmark recordings, that it ultimately leaves you pining for Papa's old bag of funk tricks.

At 69, Brown's voice is still unmistakable, though not nearly as dynamic as it once was, and his spirit is still energizing. But even that combination of virtues can't keep "The Next Step" from sounding overproduced and emotionally stunted. In fact, it's a little surprising that there's isn't more of a whiff of karaoke in the air here, since Brown recorded and mixed the music in North Carolina, then added vocals at another studio in Georgia. Still, it's not the recording method but rather the frequently dulling sonics that undercut Brown's performances and leave you wondering why his band sounds so curiously muted much of the time.

There are, however, flashes of Brown's brilliance here and there. The old school soul ballad "Send Her Back to Me," with its riffing horns and pleading refrain, easily ranks among the highlights, as does "Good and Natural," which is part funk throwdown and part funk throwback. And despite a nearly nonsensical lyric, "Killing Is Out, School Is In" finds Brown and former Original Flame Bobby Byrd collaborating in full funk chant at the album's close.

-- Mike Joyce

Appearing Monday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from James Brown, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8122. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)

James Brown's "The Next Step" has a few missteps.