Sly and the Family Stone
Stuck on a Groovy Island with the Funk Family Stonerson
The Lineup Card (1967-1983)
Sly Stone (vocals, keyboards, guitar, etc.)
Freddie Stone (guitars, vocals)
(bass, vocals) until 1972 also of Graham Central
also of Graham Central Station
Greg Errico (drums) until 1972
Jerry Martini (saxophone) until 1975
Rosie Stone (piano) until 1975
Cynthia Robinson (trumpet) until 1976
Capn's Note: You could fill a family tree with the folks who worked on the late-70's era Sly Stone albums, especially the drummers. I won't list them here.
There's few stories in music, white or black music regardless, that are quite like that of Sly Stone, founder, songwriter, voice, driving force, and ultimately the drug-battered destroyer of Sly and the Family Stone. Above all else, the Family Stone was clearly one of the most important and defining bands of the 1960's, both musically and socially. This was an R&B/rock crossover band that operated independent of the strong-but-stifling Motown/Atlantic/Stax axis, exclusively performing original compositions that absorbed ideas from influences both obvious (James Brown and various Motown acts, especially the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and the Four Tops), and more convoluted (modern jazz, Jimi Hendrix, acid rock). They were fresh, independent, and brave, and as such represented a real threat to the soul music establishment when they first debuted in 1967. It would be a few years before Motown, in particular, would be able to respond by allowing their flagship acts to release similarly challenging fare. They also represented a threat to the social order - this was the first high-profile pop group featuring players of different sexes and races operating in complete equality (not counting background singers as bandmembers, of course). Sly Stone positioned himself as one of the more outspoken members of the music community in terms of social issues, finally going so far with his fearlessness as to release a song called 'Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey' (which could be subtitled 'Don't Call Me Whitey, Nigger', just so's youse knows they're not racists themselves, unlike, say, Erykah Badu or Tiny Tim) on their 1970 album, Stand! Mostly, though, they made an irresistibly dancey groove with flawless musicianship, boundless, youthful energy, and an incomparable sense of healthy optimism that crossed all lines as phony as 'race' or 'gender' or 'class' and just felt like human music. At times all I've needed to pull me out of some major blue funks is a spin of Sly and the Family Stone's Greatest Hits to pick me up, turn me around, kick me in the butt, and send me on my way. That monster collection of singles from their first four albums has to rank as one of the most brilliant bits of pop perfection - it's accessible, lighthearted, and simple but virtuosic, thought-provoking, and groundbreaking at the same time. This band may have been made up of colossally talented individuals and were led by a shrewd, intriguing genius, but they were also a product of their time and place. Sly and the Family Stone could only have happened in the late-60's.
The story goes a-like this: In the mid-60's, Sly Stone was a Bay Area-based DJ and record producer who'd had a few regional hits as a solo artist. He began to form his Family in late 1966, reportedly after producing a recording session by Grace Slick's pre-Jefferson Airplane band the Great Society that had so disgusted him that he decided that if no one was going to step up and make any better music than that, he'd have to do it himself. Of course, as a San Fran resident at the time, he was also smack dab in the middle of one of the more extraordinary social revolutions in the history of the planet, and I'm sure that didn't hurt. The band's debut came and went without too many people turning heads, but with Dance to the Music came a string of hit singles culminating with the big-butt crossover hoohah of the Stand! album and a hippie-rattling appearance at the Woodstock festival in 1969.
The shock of what came next was earth-shattering for people paying attention. 1971's There's a Riot Goin' On was completely alien to anyone who'd expected either more of the bright-sun funk of the singles or some advanced, more political and heavy form of Stand! (A funk Kick Out the Jams as one guy put it). This album put you in the middle of a drug-addled mind - cottony, sludgy, and yet ragdoll-flexible, ambivalently angry yet too stoned to Stand. Musically it was deceptively lazy, hiding some of the band's best grooves ever. It's a fucking masterpiece of disillusionment and loathing, proving once again that it's not how you scream out loud, it's how loud you don't have to scream that counts. Strangely enough, the creepy single 'Family Affair' ended up a number one hit for the band, so the record company didn't protest too badly, either. Of course, it's hard to follow up in the wake of a quiet riot (just ask Randy Rhoads), but the increasingly Axl Rose-erratic Sly continued making albums first with, then without the Family Stone throughout the 70's, each one less ingenious and more self-apologetic than the last (sample album titles - Heard Ya Missed Me, Well, I'm Back and Back on the Right Track, which might as well be renamed Sorry I Was Too Stoned To Perform At That Concert You Went To, But Buy This Album Anyway and Those Last Few Albums Sure Stank, I'll Admit, But I Copy My Classic Formula More On This One, respectively), before finally dropping out completely in the mid-80's after appearing on Funkadelic's Electric Spanking of War Babies album in 1981 and releasing one last solo album (1983's Ain't But the One Thing. That one thing? Cocaine, gentlemen). The man's been heard of only once in a blue ball since, isolating himself and, having invested his entire fortune in the Nostril Bank And Trust, not looking too bright financially.
This band is an absolute essential for a Sixties music fan, as for one thing they actually made albums in the rock 'n' roll sense of the word, saving you from having to wade through ten gazillion ancient, used instrumental, covers, live, and compilation vinyl albums like you'd have to do with James Brown, or bashing your self about the head and neck trying to make sense of a Motown discography. Plus, the Family Stone are clearly one of the hallmarks of the age, a true original, one of only a dirty handful of bands that really took music somewhere over a very short and productive period of time. Plus, they groove like motherfuckers...your F-Punks and Commodes and Ohio Grabass Players might be more celebrated as funkmeisters, but for my money, excepting the Godfather himself, nobody ever really made my ass move like sixties' Sly and the Family Stone. This stuff is uncut funk of the top rank, mate. Of course, after the fallout they were anything but first rate, but they still never stank, and can you say that about the Temptations? Or Cameo? Or Kool and the Gang? Or my itchy buttcrack?
What Sly don't do is basic soul. The man's got this cool, growly voice, but outside the debut and a few other instances, he doesn't go for the Big Soul Ballad. He chants, he screams, he hollers, he yodels, he scats...but 'singing'? Like the way voice majors mean it? Not really. He also has a tendency to latch onto a particular production gimmick (phased drums, fuzz bass) or catchphrase ('Higher!') and ride it around and around the entire album like a pony. It's a little childish, as are some of his lame-as-usual late-Sixties-y experiments, but hell...I can forgive 'em. One thing that begs no forgiveness, however, is his top-rank band. Sly himself plays a mean organ (just listen to 'Dance to the Music'), as well as piano, a weird, scratchy guitar, and even bass on his later albums. The man is simply monstrously talented, kinda like Prince but without the homosexual heterosexuality. Brother Freddie Stone played a mean funk guitar and even got to get down with the acid jam on Stand's 'Sex Machine', hornblowers Cynthia and Jerry had enough personality (and call-and-response presence) to step up and become more than just sidemen, and steady drummer Greg Errico was less showy than some of James Brown's skin bashers like Clyde Stubblefield, but no less crucial as a funk beatkeeper. Bassist Larry Graham was, however, the singular innovator in post-Motown bass playing, popping, thumping, sliding, and slapping his way further than anyone ever took the instrument prior to that time. Nowadays it's more commonplace to hear a person beat their bass like a conga drum while nudging aside the lead guitarist with complex, intricate lines, but before ol' Larry, you plucked politely with your fingertips and kept your yap shut (except, maybe, if you were John Entwistle, and he was still a pretty quiet dude). Bass players of all sorts have Larry Graham to thank for opening up the Book of Funk to their instrument.
One not about Slut and the Family Fuck is that, for no good reason whatsoever, for a long-ass time all you could ever get on CD was a couple of compilation albums, Stand!, Riot, and Fresh. They recently reissued their first three (at last), but you still have to shake down your local used vinyl slinger for anything post '73. I, of course, got them all for free in a few afternoons using my new bestest pal Soulseek, but for those of you for which blatantly ignoring copyright law isn't such everyday behavior, prepare to shell out some bucks for some scratchy-ass record albums to equal this godly tribute to Sly Stone's greatness (except for High on You. That one can suck the 3-day old Beef and Broccoli from betwixt my bicuspids).
A Whole New Thing
- Epic 1967
Okay, so maybe the title is a little too hyperbolic, considering they didn't really fire the first shot of the Funk Revolution until Dance to the Music came out the next year, but Sly is still sure he's onto something good. He's just not clear on how people are going to take it. He casts himself as the abused outsider on 'The Underdog', a speedy Stax/Volt leadoff track that acknowledges that he knows 'he has to be twice as good', but luckily he doesn't 'try to think too much'...he just lets rip with his ace band playing tension-and-release arrangements that build excitement like crescendos were half off that week at the Dynamics Supercenter. My favorite part of this song is there on the chorus where you get this massive contrast between the busy drum bashing and the soarrrring horns playing these rise-to-heaven lines...aww man. It's their first song. Let me tip my hat and crack open a beer. Ahhh, now let me just chuck it at Ron Artest and we can continue with this here record album review.
This album is somewhat more conventional and down-to-earth than the other Family Stone entries, so if something like 'If This Room Could Talk' might just sound like good, angular soul music, don't be too surprised, but still Sly comes across much wittier and goofier than the average buttoned-down soul man from Detroit way. Would Berry Gordy have allowed bizarre scatting on the outro of a tune, or have allowed such an obviously drug-influenced track like 'Run Run Run' on a 1967 Motown album? I sincerely doubt it...he was still censoring his albums for children's ears and hoping someday he could get Marvin to sing showtunes again. Ugh...if Sixties Motown too often sounds like bubblegum for kids (and Seventies Motown sounds like it's trying too hard to be hep), then Sly's bright debut might be just for you. He's still, you know, essentially a walking smiley face, but he's singing lyrics that went along with the All Together Now flower-power times and at least winking at us that he knows about sex and drugs. It'd be a few more years before he'd let on that he hid a razor blade behind that sunny façade, but in black music Sly was the cool older brother to James' big papa and Motown's out-of-touch cousins. Listen, please don't take it that I'm blasting Motown or dislike these bands or anything. I love that stuff, and my endless racks of their albums should prove that. It's just that they weren't on the cutting edge by 1967 in comparison to Sly or James. They were still trying to be the Ambassadors to the White People, putting forth a scrubbed-clean, tuxedo-and-evening-gown image of black folks that was neither genuine nor particularly beneficial. Besides, Motown were incomparable at making singles, but their albums were never this good until Sly forced them to be. Again, he's not necessarily splitting the Bootie Atom yet, but there's this immediacy to even the most conventional soul-groove tracks that means business. The pounding 'Bad Risk', which calls up memories of the MGs, or even the sweet Otis gospel ballad 'That Kind of Person', hell, even the screaming filler track 'Dog' has this impeccable arrangement of voice, horns, and organ. The album lays the truth out right there on the table - Sly has in his possession the capability to equal or beat the groove, soulfulness, and melodicism of just about any black artist (or otherwise, for that matter) in existence in 1967. If Whole New Thing still has most of itself based in the best of it's influences rather than absolute originality, chalk it up to the fact that it's still a debut album.
Now tell me again why I cut so many bands three or four albums of slack while they stumble about trying to get their shit together when there's people like Sly Stone or Jimi Hendrix that can nail it the very first time out? Jesus, am I a racist or something?
Sly's only big mistake here is deciding to cut the power to the Funk Generator and croon (nearly a-capella) a schlocky tearjerker ballad called 'Let Me Hear It From You' that will forever remind me of Elvis Presley's worst onstage material. Sly sounds pretty good, really. His disarmingly low register sometimes shocks folks who are used to hearing his howling). That's not the problem. The problem is that the energy level gets dropped to zero during this Dean Martin show tryout, and the whole thing sounds tacked on to appeal to, well, whomever this kind of thing appeals to. It ain't me, babe. Sly doesn't compromise himself much, but this sure sounds like one of those times. He pulls a similar trick on the album closer with 'What Would I Do?', but the difference is that he invites his band along this time...the presence of that patented springy beat and those crisp horns make a huge difference when Sly decides he wants to soul it up. I'll eat songs like this one up, just as long as he's serving.
Luckily the rest of the album keeps it square and in the groove, and there aren't too many missteps. 'Advice' marks some of the bands first use of tag-team vocalists and some notable call-and-response (as well as some of their best, randomly tumbling horn lines). 'Trip to Your Heart' pioneers astro-funk, a truly trippy mass of doubled drumbeats and more fall-down-the-stairs melodic breakdowns that has to be seen as a major touchstone for George Clinton in his development of the P-Funk ideal. 'Trip' is usually mentioned as the album's weirdest, most experimental moment, but I always tend to find the most mind-bending moments are the most confident, hardest rocking ones, and 'I Cannot Make It' is probably the albums funkiest moment. Some questionable soul lays out lines like 'I'm so hip!' and 'If I make it till tomorrow, I'll be surprised!', two swaggering, juicy hooklines in a song full of them. The whole album is strong like that. It lacks familiar hits (either a blessing or a curse, depending on the frequency of your decency, if you 'recapture' my 'Fallujah', and I think you do), but has brilliant surprises around all corners. I think it's great, even if lots of it is still just late-60's soul like lots of folks did. It's the parts above and beyond that make it great.
Capn's Final Word: Maybe not wholly new, but damn near whole-ass fine, fo' sho! Funky good times.
Mike Your Rating: A
Any Short Comments?: That's Larry Graham singing Let Me Hear It From You and What would I do, and that's Freddie on That kind of person and at least one other which escapes me. Sly's lower register is better demonstrated on I Hate To Love Her and later Family Affair. I agree this is a fine album, although I probably would've rated all of Sly's first six albums A or A+ on your scale.
amendment: Larry sings lead on Let Me Hear it from you, What Would I Do and Bad Risk. Freddie sings lead on That kind of person, I cannot make it (1/2-2/3 of it anyway) and Dog.
Dance to the Music
- Epic 1968
So the cover photo makes them look like outtakes from a 1968 Sears Roebuck fashion catalog (and after so long seeing Sly sporting only his trademark Natural, it's a bit shocking to see him with a reasonably short 'do), but the grooves inside might as well have been beamed in from the planet Ass Shake. What the band cooks up on the smash hit 'Dance to the Music' might sound at least fairly accessible (gospel vocals, Dixieland clarinet, Steve Cropper country-funk guitar, that whole revival-tent horn-line stuff), as a whole it's more alien than Ol' Dirty Bastard (RIP) opening a Merle Haggard concert. In a stroke of genius, Sly introduces the components of his wild sound individually, allowing each member to come in one by one and announce themselves vocally ('I'm gonna add some bottom' is Larry Graham's inimitable line as he thumps up an impossibly fuzzy mess of bass farts), making it seem more human, but yet also making it perfectly clear that this huge, complex sound is being made by only half a dozen or so people at any one time. And 'Dance'? Yeah, it's a command, and I usually whine like a two-year-old whenever I'm told what to do, but in this case I don't have to be told twice. The Dancin' Army marches ever onward with the huge centerpiece 'Dance to the Medley', umm...thing that collects songs together, and should be better known as 'a bunch of alternate takes of 'Dance to the Music'. Balls, gentlemen. Pure. Balls. Only 'Music Lover' could possibly be seen as a different song, and even it shares the same bash-bash forcebeat and identical guitar jankle as 'Dance'. Ah well...in this age of dance remixes and easily accessible intoxicating solvents, who cares that Sly and the Family Stone essentially shared some practice tapes of one of their greatest songs with us? Certainly not my ass. It began shaking about 12 minutes ago and has since taken my wallet and keys and gone on a joyride looking for some comfy leather barstools to flirt with.
Weirdly, there's some dull moments here that I wasn't expecting, not after the nearly flawless debut, and I'm not at all talking about the acid-drenched interstitials that tie together 'Medley'. I'm sayin that 'Higher' and 'I Ain't Got Nobody', f'r instance, never light my fire, and that jerky ballad 'I'll Never Fall In Love Again' reminds us all that Sly is not and will never be Al Green. In fact, 'Ride the Rhythm' is the first track that truly pops the clutch into forward movement since 'Dance to the Music' (okay, that orgasmic peak on 'Music Lover' is pretty good, but I...just...can't...give...credit...to...the...recycled...groove.. guh!). It's a wah-wah festival that ushers in the generally fantabulouso Side B - bluesy smooth-rolling grooving with 'Color Me True' that sounds like the best of blaxploitation from five years in the future and Sly creating more groundbreaking integrato-funk with the delightfully schzoid acid-rock tune 'Don't Burn Baby', falling somewhere between speedy 1967-era Grateful Dead modal jamming and the Sunday Morning Good News Gospel Hour on the AM radio. This classic ain't nothin' if it ain't original, baby, and I hazard to say that not too much music that sounds like this helium-jam has been produced since this. It lets the air outta my tuba that he recycles the groove to 'Dance to the Music' again (what is this, five times on the same album?), essentially taking a pretty good hook ('We're soul clappin'! Whoo!' *clappa clappa clappity clap I've got the clappa clap clap!* ) and tosses it right down the septic sewer. Granted, it's only a bonus track, but my sensibilities are still insulted. His other gimmicks wear similarly: I've had so goddamn much of that fuzz bass by the time this album's over I had to put on some Charles Mingus just to remind myself the low register doesn't naturally distort that way. I mean, crap, it's not like he couldn't write other rhythm parts than the one that starts, leads off, and is featured on no less than 20 minutes of this album, but it sure seem like he fell in love with the goddamn thing. I guess I excused 'Medley' because it so obviously sounded like an extended 'Dance', plus the title pretty much confessed his self-regurgitating ways, but this song very easily could've been completely different but just wasn't. I'm also sure that drummer Errico, who was a pretty talented guy, had more ideas than this but was limited by Sly's single-minded decision-making. I, personally, would like to see this album remixed with some different drum parts to hear how good it could really be.
Then again, I'm bitching about recycled drum parts when AC/DC used the same drumbeat from the Ford to the Clinton administration and got away with it. There's just no justice for the black man, I guess. Except isn't Errico white? Goddamn honkies.
Anyway, because I don't remember Whole New Thing repeating itself at all, much less having so many tracks that don't really flip by Bic, I have to rate this one somewhat lower though it can easily be seen as an advancement of sorts. It's hard not to see stuff like 'Ride the Rhythm' or 'Don't Burn Baby' or the title track as miniature avant-soul revolutions, and so you have to give this album some credit despite my complainin'. Sheeit, get yourself a cheap drumbox like a Zoom or something, make up your own drumbeats, ProTools 'em on here, and see if you like this one better. You very well might.
Capn's Final Word: Haven't I heard that drumbeat before? Sly unnecessarily cheapens what could've been a much more impressive followup. He should be more worried about rearranging the pop landscape than rearranging 'Dance to the Music'.
Your Rating: A+
Any Short Comments?: I gotta come to the defense of this album, not that your review is a pan or is even that unfair, but this is definitely my favorite Sly album and pretty high on my favorite albums of all time list. The tracks you consider to be dull are some of my favorite: Higher is a very fun if conventional soul song like the debut but has a great soaring chorus and bluesy harmonica jam breakdown that I just love, I ain't got nobody is a love ballad with a shuffling tempo and boogying piano, very creative, and never fall in love again has a great melody and great bluesy breakdowns (it will never happen again yeah). In regards to Sly repeating himself, I think that that criticism is so unfair when so many other acts in white rock have made their entire careers by recycling the same formulas ala AC/DC or The Ramones, and Sly had many different songs up his sleeve outside this one transcendantally awesome formula. Plus, unlike the Ramones, who are basically further reducing the already simple (and great) formula of Chuck Berry, Sly's Dance to The Music is neither simple nor unoriginal. It's the missing link between the tight precision of James Brown and chaotic ensemble polyphony of P-funk, and may very well be the best and purest dance song of all time, equally faithful to the spirit of funk, soul, rock, and even early big band and new orleans jazz, as well as foreshadowing disco and club music. I think it would have been a mistake NOT to recycle it, and doing so gives the album a good sense of continuity, as though it's just one massive groove.
The quickie, commercially disappointing followup to Dance to the Music is actually back on the right track, if you don't mind me stealing from Sly, who I guess has stolen so much from his own damn self he may not be able to tell the difference anymore. Yeah! Scream it from the rooftop, shout it out, just like that Garbage-slathering band of lameos Republica, Sly Stone copies himself! Obviously! Often! On the same album! But I still love him...how can you not love a wood-nymph lookin' crackhead with a basso voice and a 'fro the size of New Hampshire? That's why I love Sugarfoot from Ohio Players...the man is simply not somebody you'd run into on the street every day. Of course, here in Middle America we're so isolated by urban sprawl and paranoia we barely even have contact with other human beings at all, but that's not my point. Sly Stone is a one-of-a-kind, dammit, and if he wants to clone his music, he's just the right drug-crazed mad scientist for the job. The man nudge-nudge and wink-winks his way through a 'Dance' quote right there at the outro of his leadoff track 'Dynamite!', as if he's giving us a laugh at his own expense, acknowledging that he overused the groove the last time around. Ha ha, hardy har, whatta cad that Sly Stone.
Your ears don't deceive you...he then turns around and re-records it again, drumbeat and clarinet intact, this time calling it 'M'Lady' and somehow sticking it on his Greatest Hits album though he left off any of the tracks off Whole New Thing. Dude, this is heinous shit, but luckily it's the last time he does it....until he re-records 'Thank You Fallettenme Be Mice Elf Agin' on Riot, but that time was, like, a political statement or something. Or. Something. Hey, I guess I like 'M'Lady' quite a bit better than 'Soul Clappin' or the 'Medley', so whatever. I'm a douchebag who eats backpedaling for breakfast.
Smoking plagiarism detector notwithstanding, this album is damned enjoyable. Fuzzy lead guitar has become the new fuzzy bass on this album, as witnessed on 'Dynamite' churgling a trippy-type riff alongside one of the loudest, wackiest drum fills ever on a record album. Freddie is just too much of a funk guitarist to truly wig out in a Big Brother/Holding Company manner, but he still is one of the more striking sounds on this album, as the horns continue to step backward and Larry Graham's bass becomes more a part of the foundation and less of an in-yo-face middle finger of fuzzhood. Life is where Sly Stone's arrangement talents return to him in full force, meeting up with a slightly more biting hardy-har hippie-eqsue social critique ('I liked the use of institutional racism with regards to the Vietnamese, but I felt you could've gone further with the dehumanization there. I docked you a couple of points for that.') most of it borrowed from Frank Zappa ('plastic people', all that crap about groupies on side 2) along with some general lighthearted stupidity, also borrowed from Frank Zappa (the two songs about animals). I guess if all of the Sly albums were full of dense party grooves like the deliberately paced, tribal 'Into My Own Thing' (yet another obvious P-Funk starting point) I'd call them lacking in humor, so it's not like the man can win either way. Not unless he fills up an entire album with undeniable classics like 'Life' and 'Fun', anyway, and not even ol' Sly Stone can do that much.
Okay, there are lame spots, but I want to leave a good overall impression from this album review because I really do want people to like these guys. Out of twelve songs, only 'Chicken', 'Plastic Jim', 'M'Lady', 'I'm an Animal', and 'Jane is a Groupee' are less than Sly's best work, and that's just because he tries to squeeze one last drop of gold juice from a proven cash cow ('M'Lady') or gets too cute with his counter-culture tweaking (the rest). Only a sheer genius would have the guts to load up 'Life' with horn charts that sound like they were stolen from Barnum and Bailey's Flying Circus and make them work, not to mention making a cliche like 'You don't have to die before you live' sound like a truly profound statement of affirmation. God, 'Dynamite' and 'Love City' rock, 'Into My Own Thing' is creepier than a ghetto liquor store at 4 AM, and 'Fun' is just that. Even the bonus track ('Only One Way Out Of This Mess' with some more cool break 'em down then build 'em up again horn and vocal charts) is a good one. With Life, Sly hadn't yet discovered that he didn't need to experiment with left-field lyrical weirdness when he already had all the revolution he needed in his music, that a song like 'Fun' is more subversive in its way than any bearded old grumbles about how everyone who isn't wasted all the time sleeping with Groupees and sowing a harvest of unwashed hair to the asscrack is Plastic.
Capn's Final Word: When Sly outsmartasses himself it falls apart, but when the man is himself, Life is Fun, Funky, and Danceable.
This album is finally it - a brilliant statement from Sly Stone in his own voice (rather than Frank Zappa's) and no raw self-ripoffs to cheapen things. Stand!, packed full of deceptively upbeat, dance-yer-moustache-off classics ('I Wanna Take You Higher', 'Stand!', 'You Can Make It If You Try', 'Sing A Simple Song', 'Everyday People') which not surprisingly form the bulk of the Greatest Hits CD released the next year (two more off that record are 'Hot Fun in the Summertime' and 'Thank You Fallettenme Be Mice Elf Agin', two classic singles also from this time. You think maybe Sly'd got some inspiration or something?) I say 'deceptively', because if you sit and listen closely there's actually quite a nice little paranoid/cynical/ subplot happening on here to temper some of the more corny Up With People moments. Take 'Sing A Simple Song', on face value a hard-funk ode to, you know, the uplifting power of humming to yourself and stuff ('do re mi fa so!'). But the first verse lays it right out there: "Time is passing, I grow older, things are happening fast, All I have to hold on to is a simple song at last." Now, in the middle of such a double jointed ultragroove punctuated by random members of the Family howling and 'la-la-la-la'-ing, it might easily get lost, and I might be reading too much into it, but this is more a song of desperation than anything else. 'Somebody's Watching You' is also oddly foreboding (though not, as you might think, because it's about stalking some chick, mailing her envelopes full of your body hair and leaving dead cats on her pillow or anything like that). The King Kong moment of acid ambivalence, however, is 'Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey', a track that wants to illustrate racial strife so closely that you feel it in your gut, taste it right there on your tongue and wish you could spit it out. The lyrics ain't much ('Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey, Don't Call Me Whitey, Nigger' and one verse that's pretty hard to decipher), but the true conversation is between Sly's wordless talkbox scatting and his band...is he providing commentary, or cursing, or merely telling us all this racist bullshit is just meaningless, irritating noise? Well, it is an irritating noise, extremely psychedelic in its way (bad trips only please), but trying over the course of almost six minutes humming the same old seven-note riff , but I guess that's the point. You're not supposed to want to hear this stuff any more than you have to. As a statement, it's an A+, as a song, C. But you can't deny the song has a point, and everyone needs to feel its effects once. 'Sex Machine' isn't nearly that essential...this is merely a Funkadelic/Miles Davis groove jacked through until the end of the universe over which Sly does more of his talkbox stuff, though more on the 'guitar' end of things than the 'alien mouth noises' end. When Freddie (well, I suppose it might be Sly himself, but I doubt it) actually plays a normal, wah-ed guitar solo, the song improves ten-thousandfold, like Britney Spears with good lighting and an airbrush. Freddie's not Jimi Hendrix (or John McLaughlin, or Jeff Beck, or even Geoffrey the Toys R Us giraffe) on his axe, but he is somewhat smooth and engaging as a player. When Freddie's turn ends again and Larry finishes his short bass solo, you're back in bed next to Kentwood, Louisiana again, double chin, zit pits, angry wasp nest fuzzbox, and all. Miles would take this kind of stuff to an extreme in the early 70's, but the man also played a motherfucker of a trumpet. 'Sex Machine' ain't a bad jam, but between this and James Brown's version, I know which one's gonna get me on up. (By the way, there's not a single shred of connection between the two, just so's you don't get all pissy the first time you hear the Sly version like I did).
Anyway, my paranoid theories might all end up to be a bunch of horse turds, but I have my suspicions that Stand!, more than anything, was a desperate attempt by the man to keep a hold on himself while his psyche was being cracked by too much fame and too many drugs. It ain't easy having the whole R&B world watching your every move, with Hendrix and Miles telling you how much you've influenced them, then seeing your last album tank it at the record store. Stand, I'm sure of it, was Sly's Big Statement Album, and that he intended it to be the final word in political and philosophical pop music at the end of the Sixties. We've already discussed the cracks in the facade, but the anthems he was able to make come pretty goddamn close to realizing his dreams (pretensions). The man never made a better pure dance statement than 'I Want to Take You Higher', an orgasmic 5+ minutes of nothing more political than uninhibited ass-wiggling, which I guess if you think about it is a sort of political statement in and of itself (and just might get you thrown in the clink in certain counties of Arkansas and Mississippi). It sounds like the band is having a helluva good time performing it, too, just like they would onstage at Woodstock later that year, successfully rattling the stoned-out Melanie/CSN/Country Joe McDonald-sedated masses out of their stupor for at least several minutes. 'Stand' and 'You Can Make It If You Try' are more laden with message, but nothing too much more political than the line 'there's a midget standing tall/beside him a giant about to fall' (from 'Stand'), unless you're a member of the establishment, for which a confident, roused masses (be them black, white, or whatever) isn't necessarily what you want to have look back at you from the cover of your Time magazine. They're also brilliant compositions, fully in the Sly mode of upbeat songwriting dating back to his debut album.
The most enduring track on the entire album, and truly one of the most intelligent political songs of all time, is 'Everyday People', just two minutes in length and riding the same groove the entire time, but perfectly concise and gently firm in its stance. Sly reminds us that we're all just people, and the resolution to each line absolutely destroys the preceding descriptions of petty conflict ('there is a white one that won't accept the black one...') in a quiet detonation of irrelevance ('and so on and so on and scooby dooby doo'). Who cares about all this stupid, endless 'scooby-dooby-doo' when we're all just 'everyday people' in the end. Sly's verses speak from his own heart as an artist: 'you love me, you hate me, you know me and then, you can't figure out what bag I'm in'. Pointing to his unpredictable, conflicting moves in the future? Possibly. Whatever it is, I'm hard pressed to think of a more clearly enunciated statement in pop music executed in as concise, compelling, and human way than 'Everyday People'.
Stand! is Sly busting his head wide open to bring the world anthems of equality, encouragement, and mobilization towards human goals, almost working himself down to his last thread in an attempt to bring people around to his integrated, postitive way of thinking, and pointing out how much of the evil and conflict between people is simply nonsense. He stands by music and expression as his tool of choice for social change, and seems confident that this, an aware populace, and a positive outlook is enough to bring about real improvement in the world. But with desperation comes a little bit of obsession, and tracks like 'Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey', 'Sex Machine', and 'Sing a Simple Song' show that even Sly didn't quite believe it could be all that simple. He was cracking, indeed, and his final goodbye to the classic era of Sly and the Family Stone came as a followup single to Stand! called 'Thank You Falletenme Be Mice Elf Agin', a graphic and unsettling tale of awakening to the fact that a lot of his efforts had been not only in vain, but that also he'd been denying the evil that was living within himself, an evil every bit as real as the smiling, positive Sly that the world had known since 1967. It's set to a dark funk, led by Graham's popping bassline, seemingly stuck halfway between the brightness of Stand! and the muted burbling to come. Dig:
Lookin' at the devil, grinnin' at his gun
Fingers start shakin', I begin to run
Bullets start chasin', I begin to stop
We begin to wrestle, I was on the top
This isn't Sly claiming victory over the devil inside him, it's him staring it in the face and seeing that it is reality. He also makes references to feeling unable to express everything he's feeling and that 'dying young is hard to take but selling out is harder', as if he'd sold part of himself out and had finally reclaimed it. He was, indeed, glad to be himself again, even if that meant he could never be genuine about singing 'Everyday People' anymore. It's chilling for an outsider to see someone's optimism die so publicly.
Capn's Final Word: Sly gave up a large part of himself to get this high, and sometimes the strain shows.
There's a Riot Goin' On -
The cracks already showing on Stand! despite its overall anthemic optimism, are burst open wide on There's a Riot Goin' On, and Sly done changed since the time of the Woodstock nation, that's for goddamn sure. These changes, the reversals, the continental shift in Sly's approach shown here couldn't have been predicted by anyone, because he never let on that he would surrender himself to the void quite like this. Everything about this album is fit to confuse, to subdue, to seduce...take the title, f'r instance. There may be a riot in the streets somewhere, but Sly sure as hell ain't in it...he's curled up on his couch lost in a warm, pink-cottony womb of his very own, where the horrors of the world outside of one's eyelids play as a detached unreality, like the familiar-but-alien feel of the washed out cover photo. Riot is an intensely personal record by a man who is so addled by chemicals and disillusionment he finds it hard to express himself beyond the idea that it 'feels so good inside myself/don't want to move' (the first line of the first song, by the way...as if you needed more foreshadowing). The idea that this is a political album by any means is misleading...Sly has not suddenly turned revolutionary except against himself.Sly's American flag is not upside down, the stars are not curled fists or peace signs (good god)...they're sunshine acid blots. This is Sly's ultimate rebellion...against his own prejudgments, ours and his own. Since his last album, he's revolted against Stand!, against 'Everyday People', and against anyone who thought they knew what bag he was in. Those who said he was a spiritual leader, a revolutionary, or the voice of a generation were way off.
It's a body bag. He's reclused so far it's hard to hear him (as we know him) at all...sure, there are points of hazy lightness ('Spaced Cowboy', way goofy but, in my twisted opinion, the wisest song on the entire album because it's where Sly realizes that stoned pensiveness and a sense of humor aren't mutually exclusive. This is him pranking us, sending out sonar pings from the depths) but even then the isolation and detachment of each and every moment of this album is not just well-simulated, it's real. 'Thank You For Talking To Me Africa' is a devastating rerecording of 'Thank You (Falettenme Be Mice Elf Agin)' from the other side of Sly's wall. Play the first version (already pretty far gone from the sharpness of Stand!), then play this one. If a horrifying before and after picture don't begin to form in your mind, make sure you're actually a human being.
This is more than an album, it's a force of questionable motives and undeniable force. It acts directly on your environment and smudges it, makes it ambiguous, makes you doubt your assumptions. Try playing this album in any social situation besides a stoned laze in dim lighting and watch the people begin to fidget. It's natural...people don't usually enjoy feeling this disconnected unless they're willing participants. It's simply not soundtrack music for doing any activity that's recommended by the Surgeon General, that's all. If each of the musicians in Sly and the Family Stone used to concentrate on the sharpness of their hooks and the brightness and clarity of their tones, here they are intent on making a warm, alive sound, slow and deep like being underwater, or, indeed, in the womb. The funk is a heartbeat, widely varied (western on 'Cowboy', bluesy on 'Time', upbeat and romantic on 'You Caught Me Smilin'), which somehow just adds to the horror of it all. The fact that Sly was still smart enough to make what in another universe would be love songs and party songs sound even more downbeat, foreboding, but still undeniably alluring than their 'heavier' and more explicit brethren ('Luv and Haight', 'Africa Talks to You', 'Family Affair' is very, very disconcerting. Each instrument is dialed in not to stick out, even when the music is at its simplest ('Running Away'), just plays a part in the burbling whole. This is one of those albums that holds nearly infinite variations within its grooves, as new sounds come from below, surface, then fall away again. I can safely say I've never heard this album the same way twice.
By far, for me the most brilliant aspect of Riot is in its ability to bring you to a particular place, namely Sly's mental and physical condition circa 1971, whether you're experienced with drugs or exhaustion or mental illness or not. He was monumentally fucked up, to such an extent that he was risking his health and future (it was around this time that Sly began to be a regular no-show at concerts), but no one would ever enter into that state unless it felt good. The genius of Riot is that is does, in fact, feel good.
Capn's Final Word: This album has a life of its own. A funky, fucked-up life. Sly's email@example.com Your Rating: A+ Any Short Comments?: Very cool. The album's just got such a neat, funky but sorta depressing feel to it. It probably hasn't got as many classic songs as the last album, but it just works better as a whole. Besides, "Spaced Cowboy" rules. It's a shame that funk-yodeling never caught on.
Jack Your Rating: A+
Any Short Comments?: Awesome Awesome Review my man (btw I've posted on this and the Funkadelic page as "Mike" but now I'm changing my fake name to be more mysterious and unique, he he). This album is probably the biggest curveball in pop history. And I'm so glad someone other than me recognizes how decidedly UNpolitical this album is, this is just the junkie dungeon soundtrack in sly's head, the recording of which was the only reason he got up in the morning (and probably one of the only reason's he didn't die). Sly was simply an optimist who became so engulfed in disillusion that he could only find pleasure in lying around getting stoned off his ass, and this is the frighteningly alluring decadence of it all. It's musical intoxication, like noxious fumes from some tar pit bubbling underneath the earth.
Your Rating: A+
Any Short Comments?: One of the greatest albums ever made, certainly in my Top 5 albums of all time, ever. It doesn't get better than this. It just doesn't.
Apparently Sly played a lot of the instruments himself, and Bobby Womack contributes guitar to the album, though I'm not sure on what tracks; I'm pretty sure he's the guitarist on "Runnin' Away," although I'm not positive. Womack sings co-lead on "Just Like A Baby." I am sure, though, that the only tracks Greg Errico plays on are "Family Affair," "(You Caught Me) Smilin'," and "Thank You For Talkin' To Me Africa." Sly did all the rest of the drumming himself.
About "Spaced Cowboy:" You're probably right about it being a joke, though a very, verrrry offbeat one. My reasons for agreeing with you: The people doing the backing vocals are Rose Stone and Freddie Stone. At a point early in the song during Sly's yodelling, you can distinctly hear Freddie sing a very deadpan and very emotionless "yeeee-hawwwwww" in the right speaker - which is absolutely hilarious.
Also, Rose Stone. Her lead vocal on "Runnin' Away" is the best singing she ever recorded, partially because it seems as if there is absolutely no effort or affect in her performance. It seems as if she has seen a low in human behavior, and that she is a sadly resigned observer to someone else's self-destruction. Paired with the astoundingly brilliant lyrics, drumming (God, listen to that drumming!), and horn parts, "Runnin' Away" is a towering accomplishment. And it isn't even the best song on the album...that's "Thank You For Talkin' To Me Africa," but only by a slight margin. An album filled with painful truth and beautiful melodies, "There's A Riot Goin' On" makes the case that truth, no matter how ugly it is, is indeed beauty.
Mike Your Rating: A+ Any Short Comments?: Wanted to let you know some Sly Stone news: He is apparently in the studio working on an album for his sister Vet Stewart. Let's hope this actually pans out to at least something tangible...it's
been far too long that Sly's been silent.
Jack Your Rating: A+ Any Short Comments?: Actually, it's Gerry Gibson on drums on You caught me smiling, he was auditioned on the master take. Greg Errico is definitely on drums on Thank you for talkin to me africa, I'm not sure who did the rest of the d
drumming, perhaps Sly, though there might have been someone else who recorded some drum parts here too.
Essentially one lengthy stoner funk groove, Fresh is the last of the Sly and the Family Stone albums you can still easily get new in this country, but that's just the record company being rat bastard mustardsuckers like usual. Considering they can keep doing multi-million dollar reissues of the frigging Rolling Stones and David Bowie catalogues six times til tuesday but can't get it together to frigging give a decent digital debut to Small Talk (which, by the way, still was a gold album back in the day) just goes to show how much they really care about black music. For them, if its lilywhite rock 'n' roll, they can keep milking the cow decade after decade, but black music is expendable. Ever try to locate more than a handful of James Brown's classic 60's albums? Good frigging luck, man. The Godfather and First Family of funk music and you can't even get half their albums on CD in 2004. This sucks. Sucks bad.
Thankfully I have little to no regard for the law when music is concerned, so I got all the post-74 albums free on Soulseek. Anyway, you should probably go and buy Fresh regardless (it might encourage that long-delayed reissue if some interest is generated in the Stone back catalogue). This one is still halfway in the no-sharp-corners burbling, narcotic arrangement technique of Riot, only with smiley faces and brighter tempos grafted over the creeping psychoses. On the surface, Fresh is just a great groove record...all the songs are great, complex pieces in the new baroque twelve-armed monster style, and in the end meld together into one, single organism. In truth, once you've heard the opening 'In Time', you've pretty much heard the album. Not, though, because Sly is recycling pre-owned beats ala Dance to the Music, but just because musically and thematically this thing is not really divided into 'songs'. The themes shift on more of a second-by second basis, if you can dig my tricky concept. What I'm saying here is that the bass, for example, might be playing something creepy, then just a few seconds later Sly will come in with something upbeat and everything will shift in tone until the mix changes once again a few bars later. You only get an overall 'feel' for most of the songs after they are already over. It sounds like a complete bloody mess, but it's really not. It's simply complex and not particularly organized...but this is Funk Music, ladies and playas, and there's no reason why this stuff needs to be in lockstep formation like a battalion of brownshirts or something. It's meant to be fun and danceable, and as long as the backbeat is steady, you're good to go. Sho nuff, Sly might be crystallizing his frontal lobes with Ecuador's finest selection of recreational foliage extracts, but he can still ensure his music is funky, and Fresh is damn sure funky. His band is still in top shape despite losing Larry Graham to a solo career (his replacement Rusty Allen is still darn fine, though, as is new drummer Andy Newmark, who generally does an impeccable impression of Greg Errico), and let me say right here that Sly's horn section of Cynthia and Jerry has just gotten better and tighter with time.
There really isn't much to say about this album otherwise...lyrically it's a mix of the provocative (in 'In Time', Sly outwardly admits his preference for coke) and mundane, and many of the lyrics just whiz by without message or meaning, just more mouth noises clinging to the drumbeat like everybody else. That's not to say they aren't interesting when you can pick them out (he's more fucked up than the , and Sly slams out some killer lines along the way (the way he drools out 'get you on the telephone' on 'Frisky' is king killer), but the true force here is the music. 'Don't Know' (Satisfaction)' must be one of the best grooves of the early 70's, and I don't even mind them recycling 'Dance to the Music' for the 10-billionth goddamn time on 'Keep On Dancin', because they actually give you a fresh groove to dance to. Neat trick! The hit single cover of 'Que Sera Sera' is suitably weird (and pretty stoned out...it's the sloppiest song on here by far), and you know what? I wouldn't change a thing about this record. I like the fact that it has no overt concepts, and the only 'message' song I can decipher is 'Babies Having Babies', and instead contents itself on preserving this good thing they've got going in the ass-wiggling department. It's a nice contrasting companion piece to the heavy-as-a-sledgehammer Riot, similar in performance but without so much of the, you know, stuff that drives you to drug addicted self-destruction.
Capn's Final Word: Good example that not every world ends quite on schedule like it's supposed to, and when it doesn't you may as well wriggle in your pants next to a hottie in a tube top, platform heels, and a drug haze. Why the hell not?
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Your Rating: A
Any Short Comments?: FYI, Sly's playing most of the basslines himself on this one. Rusty plays on In Time, Let Me Have it all and Keep on Dancing, Que Sera sera and if it were left up to me are larry on bass since they'd been recorded before he left, all the rest are sly.
Small Talk - Epic 1974
Small Talk is more lightweight and generic and not nearly as essential as Fresh, though for sure not without some more of those juicy-steak classic Sly moments. You've probably never seen this one in the store, and I sure haven't ever come across it for less than $25 in the Wallet Snatcher bin of my local record pit, but here it is nonetheless, digitized for the world. I say get it off of the World Wide Loot while you still can, and go ahead and get every other album in existence you may have even remotely heard about, like what I'm doing. I grab at least a dozen albums every single weekday, nowadays mostly stuff like this - out of print or criminally overpriced and hard-to-find albums like Them or Pink Fairies or Zapp that only crazed, obsessed asslicks like myself care a good Gary Coleman about anymore. Anyhow, now that you know you can pick this up whenever you and your internet connection decide the time is right, let me tell you that there is, in fact, a noticeable drop in quality between Fresh and this disc, and that Fresh shares a lot more in common with Riot than this one, though this came out just a year later. According to the title track, album title, and cover photo, it seems that despite cramming enough white powder to build the Taj Majal up his nose, Sly has gotten married and procreated during the break, resulting in him getting Domestication Disease, a common ailment among formerly freaky musicians who find themselves with Families. First signs of DD are the use of too many devotional ballads, no doubt written to the New Love, espousing his loyalty and everlasting faithfulness and how she's the Earth Mama and blah blah blah. Like that twisted crackhead Sly is not gonna start boning the first pair of hotpants that gets within thirty yards of his hotel room when he gets his druggie ass back out on tour. But the DD, as sad as it is, has gotten ahold of our little dust devil but good. See, Sly never wrote love songs before this album, (at least not songs that sounded like love songs, with strings and cooing backgrounds and sweet, nonthreatening funk charts like the Commodores or Spinners or somebody play) but I'll be goddamn sure he wasn't thinking about holding hands when he wrote 'I Wanna Take You Higher' back in the day. He was writing about fucking, wall-shaking, neighbor-terrorizing, hair-straightening, six-times-then-grab-some-chicken-fried-steaks-then-back-at-it-until-you-pass-out-from-dehydration FUCKING. And it's just not done that you write those kinds of songs about your new Baby Mama. This is what you do: You write well-meaning but ultimately unexciting tracks like 'Mother Beautiful' for her, put them right there in a meaty spot on Side One where she's sure to see it. Then you slyly slip in an all-time Sign of the Two-Humped Antelope bootknocker classic like 'Loose Booty' in the badlands of Side Two and hope she doesn't notice. Sneaky, yeah, but they don't call him Sly for nothin'.
Sly even advances beyond the first stage of Domestication Disease into the more serious second tier, an extremely dangerous area marked by songs not only about, but featuring your newborn child. Now, I'm all for babies, have two of my own in fact, but if I want to hear crying all I have to do is go home and announce that Christmas is cancelled this year because someone isn't quite potty trained yet and someone else keeps waking up forty five minutes before my alarm clock goes off screaming and hollering and demanding to suck on a piece of my wife's anatomy I used to consider my exclusive domain. Sly fills the whole of his leadoff title track with his little kid's crying, which in my book is sort of like making an entire song based around a smoke alarm's bleeping. There certainly isn't anything else there to keep me interested. The whole rest of the first side is freakishly quiet, leading with two sticky ballads ('Say You Will' and 'Mother Beautiful'), finishing with a sleepy bluesy groove ('Can't Strain My Brain'), and giving us only the mid-tempo mediocrity 'Time For Livin' as an uptempo change of pace. These songs are all pleasant and professionally performed as usual (except for 'Small Talk' of course), but the first time the album ignites in any sort of way whatsoever is on the classic hard-funk nonsense track 'Loose Booty', later sampled wholesale by the Beastie Boys back when they didn't yet look like high school chemistry teachers or bore me to attempted suicide with their lame-ass albums they spend seven fucking years making. 'Booty' doesn't do much of anything new after the first minute, but in these days of looped four-bar samples it's still a monster groove these guys cook up. The ass-kickin' continues with the welcome uptempo Life-ishness of 'Holdin' On' and 'Livin' While I'm Livin', both showing more thump than the entire first side, and I even dig the proto-disco 'Better Thee Than Me' even though is more resembles the Ohio Players with disco strings grafted on than good ol' Family Stone-style grooving. There's also another dippy ballad (*yawn*), plus a ummm....doo wop disco track that ends it. Right! An endless groove this very much is not, friends and fellow perjors! He even commits the Deadly Sin of rhyming 'change' and 'rearrange' on one track, a crime more fitting to Paul Stanley or the Brady Bunch Band than this former Titan of Funk. Count yourself lucky it has as many good moments as it does, and count yourself lucky Sly didn't stoop so low with his sissy Dad-ism that he gave us a *seizes up in disgust* wedding song. Gaw. Wedding night songs? That's rock 'n' roll. Bachelor party songs? Very rock 'n' roll. A song about fucking a bride in her wedding gown right before she steps down the aisle to marry your buddy? The reason why Prince is the fucking man. Wedding songs? Almost got Bruce Springsteen a sniper's shell through the base of the skull.
Capn's Final Word: Only YOU, and a decent funk groove, can stop the painful heartbreak of Domestication.
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High On You
High earns a high B, but much like the young woman in an Ogilve advertisement, I find it lacking in 'fresh'-ness though still strong enough to make me enjoy almost the entire dang thing. High on You is the first of the Sly Stone 'solo' albums, having dropped the pretense of the whole 'band' thing (considering he's been playing many of the parts on each album since Riot, I might say it's about time), but besides that it's pure Sly. His well-discussed drug decline is really not in evidence here at all other than the winkity-wink-wink title, instead continuing the healthy, happily married, not-nearly-as-fucked-up-as-they-say-I-am vibe of Small Talk, but with better, funkier material. First off, the man's cured himself of his unfortunate bout with domestication, and besides one lousy ballad (the gloppy proto-disco 'That's Lovin' You'), the rest of this album grooves, grooves, grooves, sometimes better (the thumpariffic 'I Get High On You', the ultra-tight 'Crossword Puzzle', both stuck at the beginning of the record so you begin to think the entire thing might be this good. but it's not really), sometimes not so spicy ('Le Lo Li' is disco weak enough to make KC and the Sunshine Band blush, and 'My World' defines 'meaningless filler'). In general, describing individual tracks is again probably too much trouble for what it's worth. If I put on my hyper-critical hat I could say that 'Who Do You Love' is just yet another rewrite of the 'I Wanna Take You Higher'/Stand! style (double-tracked fuzz bass, doncha know it!), but I loved that sound then and I still like it now. And considering that the predominate movement in funk music in 1975 was towards the disco that Sly only flirts with occasionally here, I'd personally rather have him stick with the past than get too mired in trying to be too cutting edge. Wouldn't you? Or perhaps you like the way disco influences turned funk from a human, organic, healing medium into mechanical, gloppy, brainless muck? And perhaps you'd like a Soyuz rocket jammed halfway up your service entrance as well, if you dig my black slang. You do? What are you, Jesse Jackson or something?
Whatever. At least we're still primarily in that homegrown, natural-ingredients only kinda funk. Otherwise, this album is artistically pretty lame, almost completely lacking in any moments of true inspiration (no 'Loose Booty' classics here), and about as smart as $10000 worth of chrome rims on a $1500 Toyota Tercel. Damn it and Kelly Ripa's sneaky on-camera camel-toe all to frig, it's darned effective anyway. It's good enough at the familiar Sly style to make it stand out from the rest of the funk crowd, and doesn't bore us with too many lovey-dovey 'statement' songs and ballads like last time. So the man was running drier than the lead in the Riyadh Marathon, he's still got talent and his marvelous choices in sidemen to fall back on, and they've got him covered here.
Capn's Final Word: Pleasantly funky is about as far as it goes here, but it sure still sounds like Sly to me.
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Missed Me, Well I'm Back -
It seems that with latter-day Sly, we've fallen into a certain pattern that becomes quite clear with Heard Ya Missed Me - you either get Sly repeating himself to artistically defunct yet enjoyable ends (High On You) or you get Sly being original and unpredictable, with results about as reliable as letting a paranoid psychotic take your Differential Equations final for you. Of the albums in the second category, Small Talk was all schlocky and fake, loaded with bloodless balladeering that was luckily backed up by enough Fresh-style funk to outweigh the sugar overdose, but Heard Ya Missed Me is simply bizarre. I'll tell you what - Sly is trying, which I know because he tells me so right there on the opening title track, but his newest album is this weird, overbright discoid-techno mishmash that in places sounds less like the Family Stone than the Osmond Family ('Everything In You') or the Commodore 64 Family of Computers ('Mother Is a Hippie'). He tries to tell us it 'sounds like Family again', but if that were so true then where's Freddie? Where's Larry? Where's anybody in this no-name cast of robotic losers Sly's assembled for this one (and after High On You had such a good band, too)? Clearly, Sly is trying unsuccessfully to commercialize his formula, since his last album sunk faster 'n' a Mongolian battleship, but Sly's idea of disco is simply too weird to apply to most dancers. 'Let's Be Together' represents the man's twisted mindset - to Sly, disco means plenty of horns, (which is fine by me - Sly was always good at incorporating horn charts. Whoops! Except only lonely trumpeter Cynthia remains from the original Family, leading me to wonder who these other honky clowns are), plenty of strings (guh...the man started to go wrong the minute he called up his local rent-an-ensemble), a ridiculous scratch guitar riff, and the stupidest lyrics possible chanted by a couple of plasticene backup singers. Okay...that's disco, sure. I'm not a big fan, but I don't like pecans either and everyone else seems to think the motherfuckers are tastier than Miss America's pussy lips. But Sly still misses the boat so badly he's off the fucking map - the beat here is busier than a pickpocket at a Christmas parade, and instead of relying on his unsurpassed strengths - namely, his ability to write unequalled bass and drum lines, he lets his rhythm section go all generic on him while he croaks through an exceedingly bizarre set of jazzy chord changes and his band does all it can to keep up. Now, I'm no Bernie Worrell or anything, but does the average funk song need this many chord changes? My butt it does. It lives off chord changes. And Grape Nuts. But funk songs need, like, half a chord to be good.
Sly's not on any sort of a winning streak here, but goddamn his left hand is still more talented than three-quarters of the Commodores combined, add his right hand and you've got the whole Casablanca Records lineup beat cold. I said on the last review that he wasn't showing too many signs of advanced fucked-up-edness, but that's simply not true for this album. His cover photo makes him seem like a diseased goat, all teeth sticking out and nappy afro as he grins like Pol Pot at an all-you-can-massacre buffet. The man's voice sounds downright sick at times, and he obviously hides in the mix behind his background singers whenever possible, making his claim that he's somehow 'back' sound like so much junkie lip service. That his songwriting, as quirky and original as it is here, is increasingly reliant on cliches is just one more clue that he man's about three steps beyond the edge of the abyss. All I can say is that I'm surprised he was able to hide it as long as he was.
Okay, again, to completely discount the entertainment value of a Sly Stone album, no matter if it's as mixed-up and deranged as this one is, is still to miss out on some of the better funk music of the time. It may come in spurts, but the disco/Parliament groove of 'What Was I Thinking In My Head' still pounds hard, and sometimes the man's kalaeidoscopically messy funk still works ('Sexy Situation') despite the weird fusions. However, it's still better when he doesn't fuse at all - 'Thing' is a mighty hard-funk throwback without all the disco bullacrapola. Sly's never been good at doo wop, and 'Nothing Less Than Happiness' is no exception, and his balladeering is worse (the unsettlingly painful 'Blessing In Disguise' is no fun at all). It's truly a weird stew of the good (still some good hooks and singing), the bad (disco cliches, brittle, overbright production), and the ugly (bizarre chord progressions, the weird mouth noises that Sly is always coming up with), and if I'm still interested in what Sly is going to come up with next, I do hope it's not going to be too similar to this one.
Capn's Final Word: Man, if this is where Sly goes when he steps out of his confines, maybe we ought to tie him up and ply him with stronger drugs.
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Ten Years Too Soon
- Warner Bros. 1979
Oh Holy God, no, no, no. Slimy, insectoid Disco remixes of Sly and the Family Stone's great, great hits not only makes for terrible listening on its own part, but by prominently putting the band's name on it, it might even give the unsuspecting public the idea that Sly approved of this slash-and-burn job by his former record company. Make no mistake, by 1979 Sly was a card-carrying member of the walking wounded, and though he'd dabbled in disco rhythms himself (albeit in his own freakish manner - see the review for Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back), he'd never have allowed his songs to be perverted like this - classics like 'Dance To The Music' stripped of their bass and drum parts and tacked on with horrifyingly fake-sounding syndrums and 'I Was Made For Loving You' basslines. Listen - the originals of these tracks, most of them anyway, featured one of the very funkiest rhythm sections in music history, and to have the disgusting level of disrespect needed to replace them with some inflatable Plastic People session musicians playing the same god-fucking-awful bass and drum-lines (as well as the odd guitar or Battlestar Galactica 1979-era synth-line) they played earlier that day on some Wayne Newton Gets Down and Funky exploitation album is a true affront to decency and all that is good in the world. I quite literally consider this album to be a force of evil. Not just bad taste, not just trashy cashing in, but an act of pure evil bent on destroying a force of goodness in music history. Never in my life have I been as horrified as I was first hearing 'Dance To The Music' and heard Cynthia and Sly's disembodied voices floating over this dancefloor casualty of a beat track before stumbling into the most embarrassing programmed drum track since the invention of the binary programming language. Jesus! Buddha! Zeus! Allah! Krishna! Einstein! That tree over there! Whichever one of you is the ranking officer up there, please come down here and smite this black mark off the face of the Earth, wouldya? Luckily my copy is only a delete button away from the Void, but the idea that there's still people listening to 'Everyday People' as a followup to 'That's The Way I Like It' is enough to shake my faith in fairness and justice. Forget Burzum or Napalm Death or Slayer...if you want to hear the work of the Demon, put on this twisted perversion of goodness.
Capn's Final Word: Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Turn it OFF!
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firstname.lastname@example.org Your Rating: D-
Any Short Comments?: Wow, is this the first F you've given on the page? I haven't heard it, but that horrifyingly skeletal grimace Sly is making on the cover is enough to afford it at most a D-. The work of Satan indeed.
Back on the Right Track
- Warner Bros. 1979
I guess in 1979 it was still feasible that Sly was on any sort of track at all, much less the 'right' one, but three years after Back, Back (heh) gives up yet another dose of the fading Sly. Here he is again in the 'hey! Remember I used to do this stuff really well 10 years ago?' nostalgic vein of High On You rather than the peculiar, deficient margin-walking of the last one, but after hearing how that one turned out I think I can put up with some further self-cannibalization. Besides, for the most part this album is in the same style as his classic albums rather than being an outright duplication. In terms of style, there's nothing here you haven't heard before, sometimes the grooves sound more programmed than spontaneous, and besides it's only a nefariously skimpy 26 minutes long, but this is still probably the best Sly groove since Fresh. Sly's voice has repaired itself somewhat since the Kermit-frog croakfest of the last one (it's still but a shadow of the mannish howl of the Woodstock-era Sly, though), and his band tries its best to sound like the Freddies and Larrys and Rosies and Gregs of yore (actually, the genuine Fred and Cynthia are back on this one), and does a fine job of it. Right Track sounds much more like the Stand-era Family Stone band extrapolated through the Seventies (and minus that whole Riot/Fresh detour) than the mid-Seventies Sly extrapolated three years later. Even the tunes are cleaned up and well-bred - classic funk tracks with nondisco rhythms, call-and-response singing, sprightly horns, and catchy, unchallenging lyrics. On the surface you might begin thinking you're back in better days again, far from the tasteless hangover year of 1979 and having forgotten all the weird and perverted turns Sly Stone's made since 1970. Superficially, it's good times, great even. Sly plays the harmonica on 'Sheer Energy', man, just like in the day. Back is a fun record with no obvious down spots that never once reminds you Sly's been paying 2:1 to bite it on the Great Rock 'n' Roll Death Wish Chart for four years running.
Still, man, this is a good simulation but it lacks that singular late-Sixties Sly and the Family Stone trait: true excitement. Back On the Right Track has zero messages, zero concepts, zero ambition (other than to be considered a true Family Stone record, which it's not), and, in final analysis, zero greatness. There's not one tune that sticks above the general competence level into being truly memorable - It's simply a good groove album in Sly Stone's classic style. At 26 minutes in length, that might not really be enough upside for you to expend the energy in tracking it down. I don't really harbor much love for it at all, and while I respect it, I still think it's a little cheap how closely this simulates classic Family Stone, as if Sly himself were stuck on a pathetic nostalgia trip when he made this little devil. Right Track isn't pathetic, but Sly never let us find out if it truly was the 'right' track at all (I suppose this album could have led to great things if he'd kept trying), simply turning back and leaving us with a side-length of passable funk instead.
Capn's Final Word: Not much on the artistic front, either, and probably stretching it at this grade, but I suppose it takes some effort to sound this much like your former self.
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Ain't But the One Way -
Warner Brothers 1983
Apparently these tracks are taken from Sly's sessions for the followup to Back on the Right Track, recorded circa 1980 and kept in the can until George Clinton gave Sly a professional boost by including him on his 1981 Electric Spanking of War Babies album. Then a producer snatched 'em out the Vault, mixed 'em down with some clunky early-80's clips, and released it as Sly's new album in 1983, no doubt thinking he might have a minor coat-tailing hit on his hands. No love there (this one didn't do as well as Track, which didn't do as well as Well I'm Back, which didn't do as well as High, which wasn't as good as Small Talk, and so on and so on), but in terms of being a good little record, I've certainly heard worse efforts out of Sly. In fact, there's probably some advantage to this being recorded in 1980 over 1983, as the MTV bug hasn't burrowed itself under the surface to find a yummy vein to suck off of like it did with each and every other Sixties band to record in the decade of the nineteen eighties. Unlike most other artists, Sly's problems have never been with failing to keep up with trends, or doing a horrible job when attempting to do just that...Sly's problem is that he's just forgotten how to make inspired, original songs that make people want to wiggle their lower-halves. He can make uninspired ass-wigglers, or he can make 'original' songs that are essentially big messes, but since Fresh he's never been able to do both. He does a better job of striking a balance here, but the problem still doesn't get solved - this album sounds cheap and unfinished (probably because it was left that way by Sly), and more importantly, underwritten. One Way is less clearly derivative of his earlier works than Back On the Right Track was, but it's hard to identify what fills the void - there's a small hint of electrode late-period Funkadelicism in some places, and some gicky 80's glam tacked on in others (which I'd like to blame on that producer guy Stewart Levine). What I don't hear is much from Sly himself - the man sings, sure, but his touch seems missing from many of these songs. I, for one, have a hard time figuring out what parts of the Huey Lewis-y rocker 'Who In The Funk Do You Think You Are' may have come from Stone and which ones came from the mind of the sleazy empty suits. Something tells me Sly didn't contribute much. Elsewhere we get a disco funk-butt cover of 'You Really Got Me' that sounds like '75 Bowie gone berserk, a couple of shots of good dirty funk ('We Can Do It', 'Hobo Ken') and a 44-second solo Sly instrumental called 'Sylvester' which is scarier than anything on Riot. He also quotes himself (again) on the wicked 'High Y'All', which is probably more hooky, more memorable, and more twisted than any song he's made since 1973. A final bow, maybe? I'd like to think so.
I'm quite a bit less than impressed by this album as a whole, but it hardly seems fair to blame Sly himself since he was probably 3000 miles away in some flophouse sucking on the glass cock with Natalie Cole and that guy from Three Dog Night when this album was being prepared for sale. There wasn't much 'Sly' here anyway, so why should I apply 'Sly' expectations to it? The man simply wasn't involved in it after a few of the initial recording sessions, as far as I can tell. How it would've turned out with his own hand on the control board is hard for me to guess - more like the subdued classicism of Back on the Right Track, perhaps? I guess here's an example of a record album that, under the circumstances, is surprising that it turns out as well as it does considering the principal involved has been completely lost from the world since a year before it came out.
Capn's Final Word: Considering how oldy and moldy these tracks were by the time they were finally gussied up and released, it could've been much worse. Still, an ignoble way for Senor Funk to finish his career.
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