THRIFT STORE RECORDS & CHEAP RED WINE :: James Brown with a Californian Merlot

by Lane Steinberg on March 24, 2011

2nd in a series…
The Record: James Brown, “I Got The Feelin” (King), $0.50
The Wine: Monterra Merlot (California), 1997, $5.00 (discounted)

Everybody in the wine world talks of 1997 California wine like they’re talking about the Second Coming. “If it’s Rotgut Farms and it’s a 1997, BUY IT!” At the damaged label sale across the street I got a few of these bottles from the Monterra wine company which is in Monterey. A few Cabernets and a few Merlots. This is one of those weird instances where the quality varies from bottle to bottle of the same wine. The first Merlot I opened was cloudy. The fruit was shot, just alcohol left. The second was super, with lots of deep raspberry flavors. Tonight’s was sort of in the middle.

James Brown’s sixties records are worth it just for the covers. Judging from the album art, James was marketed more like a comic-book-soul-man-superhero than a pop star. The albums all have hysterical over-the-top names like “I Can’t Stand Myself When You Touch Me,” “Raw Soul,” “Cold Sweat.” It was almost like there was the possibility he would die from his own soulfulness on every LP. The cover on this one is more mundane than some of the others, with James dressed in some crazy quilted sweater letting himself go in front of a microphone. I didn’t exactly get this at a thrift store, it was a church sale. This was one of three records on a table next to a stack of underwear and socks. The other two records were the inevitable Mitch Miller LP (forget which one) and “A Jerry Vale Christmas.” Even when these King records look beat, they were cut so hot that you barely hear the scratches. This looked very worn, but for fifty cents, I was in.

I’m not that wild over Merlot anymore. I liked it when I first started to enjoy wine, but I like stuff that has a bit more edge now, like Cabernet or Syrah. The color of this is a very nice garnet. The taste is mild with a little complexity. Probably a nice pizza wine. I made catfish for a change tonight. I probably eat catfish three times a week. I can’t get enough of the stuff. Probably, I should visit Louisiana. But this food doesn’t really match with the wine. Doesn’t pull on the tongue enough. After one glass, I finished the dish, washed the dishes, and put on the first side of this James disc.

Every James Brown sixties record was undoubtedly recorded over a myriad of sessions. There are several songs with one vamp featuring James getting all hot and bothered, a few instrumentals with James playing organ or piano, and usually one or two standards. Curiously, there also always seems to be one track that’s totally drenched in echo. It’s actually very artistic from a programming standpoint, but I feel this was random rather than intentional. It’s too European to be by design. At least half the album is throwaway stuff, but the sonic differences from song to song give off this weird air of anti-context. The big soul-vamp number on this one is the title track, “I Got The Feelin’.” While nowhere in the league of his great vamps like “Sex Machine” or “Cold Sweat,” this one moves nicely. The drummer is a total gas. Not even hitting hard, playing almost matter-of-factly. Funky as utter shit. For me, though, the highlight of this LP is the standard, “If I Ruled The World.” The string quartet that opens almost sounds like Brian Wilson wrote the chart. James’ reading of the lyric is so beautiful & yearning, so naive, it’s almost embarrassing to listen to. Why is there no record of “James Brown Sings Standards”? His version of “A Cottage For Sale” on the “Thinking of Little Willie John” LP smokes both Sinatra’s AND Nat King Cole’s…

Am I gonna drink this whole bottle? Looks like it. This stuff goes down like water. It’s what they call “quaffing” wine. It says 13% alcohol but I don’t feel it much. I had some provolone cheese as I replayed side 2, so maybe that absorbed the juice. James Brown can be either quaffed or studied. This record, put on in the background of a nice gathering, would work well. Every track is very focused. Though there are no indifferent notes anywhere, though the material is pretty marginal. James always has these songs that are broken into two parts (“Maybe Good, Maybe Bad” parts 1 & 2). The first part is usually a funky plea, while the second part is usually an instrumental jam with some grunting from James in between Maceo Parker’s horn riffs. The “echo” song on this one is called “It Won’t Be Me.” The horn chart sounds like it’s from another song. It’s bordering on atonal. On these old King records, there are sometimes these crazy out songs that no one ever speaks of. For all his popularity, he is still very misunderstood on some level. He keeps making coughing sounds on this track, and with that crazy reverb, the resulting sound is positively demonic. The instrumental tracks I can do without. James is no Art Tatum. His piano improvisations have some really cool moments, but he has no idea how to sustain a melodic idea. The last track here, a piano blues called “Here I Go” would be more aptly titled, “Well, I Tried.” But, still, he has some riffs that are really unique, like Thelonious Monk after a bottle of Chivas Regal and a hit of acid. There’s a story where someone gave Thelonious a hit of Window Pane at the old Five Spot and he went back to the guy who gave it to him and said, “Got anything stronger?.” God bless his soul. This record ends with a spoken track of James thanking his fans in front of a live audience. I wonder if the whole show was taped and it’s languishing in a vault somewhere. His live shows from this period, like “Live At The Apollo,” are totally out of control. The audience sounds 100% female and half of them sound like they’re having orgasms, while the other half sound as if they’re in labor.

I got some pretty weird wines from this scratch n’ dent sale that I’ll be exploring. Some Italian stuff which I have no experience with, as well as some off-label Burgundies and Bordeaux. And, as much as I try to convince myself I’m cured, I still troll the thrift stores and garage sales for records in These Last Days of Old Vinyl…

Next: 3rd in a series–
The Record: Herman’s Hermits “Blaze” (1967 MGM), $2.00
The Wine: The Evans Wine Company, King’s Valley Cabernet (Australia) 1998, $5.00 (discounted)

Ed: Lane Steinberg has spent the past several decades writing, recording, and producing music. He currently performs with the Latin psychedelic band, Cracked Latin. Lane blogs about wine at The Red Wine Haiku Review, where he’s reviewed over 400 bottles using the strict 5-7-5 syllable poetic form.

Links: lanesteinberg.com, redwinehaiku.com, crackedlatin.com

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