James Brown's early-'70s run of classic singles and good-to-great albums is still impressive. Hell was the double album released a year after the gold-selling The Payback. To some, the title might put this effort in the realm of kitsch, but in many ways Hell was one of Brown's strongest albums. The album was the pinnacle of his work as the Minister of the Super New New Heavy Funk. From the tough and nimble Latin rhythms of "Coldblooded," and "Sayin' It and Doin' It" to the title track, all are prime pre-disco Brown. ("My Thang" is probably as hard and unrelenting as he got without spontaneously combusting.) The biggest surprise on Hell is that no matter how odd the song choices seemed, practically everything works -- excluding only "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Stormy Monday," which arguably don't belong in James Brown's catalogue, let alone the same album. Ballad-wise, Brown fares better. "These Foolish Things Remind Me of You" has him getting all warm and fuzzy as he inexplicably throws in an "I'm hurt, I'm hurt" for good measure. That song, as well as the weepers "A Man Has to Go to the Cross Road Before He Finds Himself" and "Sometime," was produced by David Matthews, who could always get good ragged-yet-poised vocals from the Godfather of Soul. Although Brown did roll snake eyes on all of side three, he left Hell on a good note. "Papa Don't Take No Mess" is laid-back, funky jazz that's worth each of its 13-plus minutes. Despite a few detours, Hell is worth listening to.
by Jason Elias