Sly & The Family Stone

A Brand New Thing
Dance To The Music
There's A Riot Goin' On
The Essential Sly & The Family Stone

A Brand New Thing (Sony '67, '95) Rating: B+
Even visionary funkateer George Clinton concedes that this was the greatest funk band of all-time. Led by brilliant former disc jockey Sylvester Stewart, a.k.a. Sly Stone, the band was significant not only because of their great tunes (which influenced not only P-Funk, The Temptations, and Prince, but also bands like Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago) but because Sly boldly had an integrated band (despite pressure from the Black Panther Party to do otherwise) where whites and women had roles of instrumental prominence. That may not seem like such a big deal today; actually, even today that would be unusual, but back then such a configuration was nothing less than revolutionary. So, without further ado, let me introduce said band: Cynthia Robinson (trumpet), brother Freddie (guitar), Larry Graham (one of the best bass players ever, later to form the Graham Central Station), Jerry Martini (saxophone), and Gregg Errico (drums). Yet for all of each member's individual importance, the obvious ringleader and visionary was Sly Stone himself, a multi-instrumentalist who wrote, produced, and arranged each song while also generally singing lead as well. Truthfully, for a few years there in the late '60s/early '70s Sly was a giant of popular music, though his band is somewhat overlooked all these years later (he brought much of that on himself, but more on that later). As for A Brand New Thing, this is more a straight soul/pop album (albeit one with lots of horns) than the funky psychedelic soul-rock style that Sly would later invent. Don't get me wrong, most of these songs are funky, or are at least danceable, and they already had a joyously colorful sound that also incorporated blues, jazz, rock, and so on. Still, this really wasn't quite A Brand New Thing, as back then Sly was very heavily indebted to Stax and Motown. This is a debut album, after all, and an entertaining one (highlighted by stellar songs such as "Underdog," "If This Room Could Talk," "Run Run Run," Turn Me Loose," "Trip To Your Heart," and "Dog") that already showcased band trademarks such as tight rhythms, call and response and/or harmony vocals by multiple band members, and punchy horn punctuations. Finally issued on cd in 1995 after years of being available only on vinyl, this was a stylish and inventive debut album that still sounds fresh and fun today, and it will still sound fresh and fun years from now as well. Really, the band's energy and passion is infectious, and Sly's full-bodied arrangements and rhythms are consistently creative and packed with ideas. Even the ballads are surprisingly effective, including the previously unreleased bonus track, "What Would I Do?," which is probably the best one, actually. Anyway, perhaps the album lacks any of the all-time classics his later albums had (I've listened to this album many times and I can instantly remember only a few of these songs while glancing at the album credits), but Sly had a clear vision right from the start, and with this fine first album the Family Stone were well on their way to achieving great things.

Dance To The Music (Sony '67, '95) Rating: A-
Sly's sister Rosie (electric piano, vocals) joined the band here, giving them their definitive lineup. Sly himself says in the liner notes that "I wouldn't trade my group for all the tea in China," and (assuming that he likes tea) I can see why. Largely ditching the mid-tempo material and soul ballads (aside from "Color Me True" and "I'll Never Fall In Love Again," respectively), this album is all upbeat, (almost) all the time, with frenetically paced songs on which a rhythmic monster is unleashed. Indeed, Errico and Graham are spectacular throughout, and the rest of the band are no slouches either, as Sly & co. deliver an upbeat party platter that can't help but lift up one's spirits. Sly actually simplifies the songwriting this time out, with a less diverse approach whereby many songs feature a simple chanted phrase ("ride the rhythm," "are you ready," "dance to the music," "gonna take you higher" - the last two later reused on more than one occasion) around which the music (again featuring lots of cool horns) GROOVES. Really, aside from the famous title track, which helped put the band on the map with help from "Mustang Sally," this album is less about songs than establishing a funky overall sound. As such, more so than the debut this album provides a better example of the essence of what the prime '60s version of Sly & The Family Stone was all about. Sure, they would get even better by writing classic songs to go with their great grooves, but rarely was the energy level higher than here. Indeed, on the 12-minute "Dance To The Medley" that forms the heart of the album the energy level is simply incredible. Clearly this was a band with the ability to build up the excitement, who enjoyed playing together and were part of an overall ensemble that was greater than the sum of its parts. Such is the infectious spirit of togetherness that’s present on these songs (again, most of which I can't immediately recall) that it's small wonder that these guys (and gals) were later a smash hit at Woodstock. However, though the group may have embodied that optimistic, idealistic late-'60s aesthetic, this music transcends any time and place. After all, Sly's mantra ("dance to the music") is a simple one that will never date, and his energetic music will be timeless so long as there's a sun in the sky and/or a party to be found.

Life (Sony '68, '95) Rating: A-
Some electric fuzz guitar immediately announces that this would be something different. For one thing, this album is more song-based than Dance To The Music, which basically hit on a great groove and just kept on going. In addition, whereas Graham and Errico were the major stars on the last album (along with Sly, of course), this more rock oriented outing sees guitarist Freddie Stone stepping to the forefront along with Robinson and Martini. Indeed, horns often supply the hooks that these songs are built around, and the songs themselves are all short and to the point, with an admirable amount of diversity that the last album lacked. Few artists could cram so many strange ideas into songs that are so accessible, which makes this albums relative commercial failure compared to its bookending releases all the more curious. This album spawned no hits and is probably the most overlooked of all the band's albums from their "classic period" (1968-1973). Yet this is a necessary Sly album just the same (those of you who are simply sticking to greatest hits packages with these guys are doing yourself a serious disservice), starting with "Dynamite!," which can make you shake your booty, sing along, and break out your air guitar. Only Sly could take a concept as silly as "Chicken" and make it work (the other animal song, "I'm An Animal," is less successful, alas), while "Plastic Jim" references Frank Zappa as horns provide the hooks and Freddie adds some neat "chicken scratch" guitar. Another hooky horn part anchors the aptly titled "Fun," which showcases Sly's gift for simple yet effective sloganeering ("when I party, I party hardy, fun is on my mind"), as does "Harmony" ("you can be you, let me be me, that's harmony"). In stark contrast, "Into My Own Thing" delivers funky acid rock that definitely influenced Funkadelic, while the title track (perhaps the best known song here) is its polar opposite, being a catchy feel good ditty with an uplifting, carnival-esque atmosphere. "Love City" and "M'Lady" are other impressive, hard rocking songs, though those who would accuse either of being an inferior rewrite of "Dance To The Music" wouldn't be too far off the mark. I wish that one or two of these songs were just a little more epic as well (a la Dance To The Music and Stand!), but when a band is this good at being economical it would be churlish to complain too loudly. Besides, the album ends with a bang, as Sly shows a darker side with a scathing commentary about how "Jane Is A Groupie" (few people were writing songs like this back in 1968, but more than the lyrics it's the music on this song that is flat-out cool, though I doubt that Jane would concur!) before "Only One Way Out Of This Mess" ends the proceedings with a funky, hooky, horn-heavy bonus track that most definitely is a bonus. So feel free to consider Life a "lost gem" or a "minor classic" if you will; I know that I do, as Sly really came into his own here, with great grooves and memorable individual songs (while looking at the album credits I can easily remember most of these songs). Yet Sly was ready to take you higher still...

Stand! (Sony '69, '95) Rating: A
Sly & The Family Stone were very good right out of the gate on A Whole New Thing. They became a great band on Dance To The Music, and Sly further elevated his songwriting on Life. Stand! took those albums a few steps further and proudly stands as the quintessential Sly Stone recording, since no other (non-greatest hits) album shows off his dual personality so well. For starters, there's the party hearty side of Sly, which is represented on classic songs such as the title track, "I Want To Take You Higher," "Sing A Simple Song," "Everyday People," and "You Can Make It If You Try." The band whoops it up good on the title track, an upbeat anthem with a joyous chorus, while "I Want To Take You Higher" is arguably the band's greatest groove. It's also a prime showcase for what a great vocal group they were, while Larry Graham's booming bass (which all but dominates the album, and in a good way) and Robinson and Martini's horn blasts are but two of the reasons why this song so wowed the crowd at Woodstock. "Somebody's Watching You" has a gentle, sing songy melody, but its Big Brother-themed lyrics show that Sly's darker side was starting to emerge. Fortunately, his optimistic side still usually wins out, and the song's gentle music leaves the bigger impression; this is exactly the type of sleeper album track that all the great albums seem to have. Anyway, "Sing A Simple Song" continues with a straightforward funk song with a high energy level and a rare sax solo from Martini, while "Everyday People" is one of those universal anthems that Sly writes so well. In barely over two minutes Sly delivers an all-time classic, with more sing songy verses, quote worthy catchphrases (the now-famous "different strokes for different folks"), and yet another joyous chorus that you can't not sing along to (the song was recently all over T.V. due to Toyota commercials, perhaps giving Sly back some of the millions he squandered on drugs). "You Can Make It If You Try" is another simple, upbeat sing along on which the unbridled optimism of the Woodstock dream (which Sly & The Family Stone will always be associated with) is at its highest, which leaves us with the two "problematic" long tracks, "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" (5:58) and "Sex Machine" (13:45). The former self-explanatory song is all about its menacing atmosphere, and if it makes you feel a little uncomfortable while listening to it, well, it's supposed to do just that. Me, I'm a sucker for '60s-styled, psychedelic wah wah guitar, so I like the song just fine. I don't love it, though, and it goes on for a little too long, unlike "Sex Machine" (not the James Brown song), which goes on for a lot too long. Then again, indulgent jam sessions were almost obligatory back when this album was recorded, and for all its faults the song is every bit as funky and far out as you would expect it to be. Besides, the underrated Freddie Stone unleashes lots more wah wah guitar, and Martini and Errico also solo, as the Family Stone again show how each separate member brought something special to the table. Alas, the good times were about to end.

There's A Riot Goin' On (Sony '71, '95) Rating: A+
After 1970's flawless Greatest Hits compilation summed up the upbeat '60s Sly by adding three great non-LP singles ("Hot Fun In The Summertime," "Everybody Is A Star," and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)"), things got dark in a hurry. Sly became a drug addict and his behavior became increasingly erratic (Axl Rose was reliable by comparison!), which caused The Family Stone to fragment amid a legendary number of missed concert gigs that almost wiped out all the good vibes his previous work had garnered. Fortunately for Sly, most people still remembered the good times, and when this album was finally released in 1971 (hard to believe, but a two year wait was actually a long time back then) it went straight to #1, largely on the back of an atypical hit single, the altogether fabulous "Family Affair" (one of several songs here that featured a drum machine, arguably the first on record). The rest of the album is a much different affair, alas, and way back when you could almost hear a collective "what the fuck is this?" when everybody first heard it. It was startling that someone who was so full of optimism and life could release such a bleak, unsettling album, what with its murky sound (caused in part 'cause Sly repeatedly recorded and then erased recordings of women "auditioning" for the album) and cynical lyrics. Yet amazingly, the more time one spends with this album the more its strengths are revealed, and most of those same people who said "what the fuck?" ended up whispering a different word: "masterpiece." Indeed, Riot creates its own self-contained world like few other albums, none of which sound anything like it despite the album's massive influence on future funk and hip hop artists. Musically, many of these tunes ride spare, desolate funk grooves that have little precedent in their skeletal immediacy, beginning with “Luv N’ Haight,” on which sister Rosie shines, and continuing with the smoothly soulful “Just Like A Baby,” on which I can practically see the bong being passed around. “Poet,” Sly’s immodest ode to himself, should appeal to fans of Stevie Wonder (indeed, there’s loads of electric piano/clavinet on the album, I suppose at the expense of the horns, which are still there but are more in the background), while Sly simply rides a loose, longish groove on the almost 9-minute “Africa Talks To You (“The Asphalt Jungle”).” And yes, the song is way too long, but it’s still an album highlight, in large part due to its simple but effective harmony vocals. “Brave & Strong” likewise grooves along, but this song shows the hooks that were so prevalent on previous albums to be in shorter supply here, as this is a densely packed mood album above all else. The melodic “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” is a rare poppy track amid the drug induced despair, but the slow, spaced out “Time” (one of several songs on which Sly sounds stoned) is more the norm. You know you’re listening to a weird album when one of its hookiest songs consists of Sly simply yodeling repeatedly (“Spaced Cowboy”), yet that song is still a lot of fun in its own completely whacked out way, while “Runnin’ Away” shows that Sly could still write in a straightforward and accessible manner. Indeed, the song possesses a childlike quality that’s far removed from the rest of the album, and when I think of this album I’m far more likely to remember the much darker “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa,” which inverts “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” in a fascinating manner. Anyway, Sly’s muted production for this album is unutterably strange and all but impossible to describe, yet the album’s flaws can’t hide the fact that, drugged up or not, Sly’s genius was still undimmed, as this is still an eminently soulful and unforgettable album. And make no mistake about it, this was Sly's album more than any of the others, as session musicians came and went and band members themselves are unsure of whose parts ended up on what. Yet against all odds the album still works as a brilliantly conceived whole, and more than any other album this one made it official: the Woodstock dream was dead, and dangerous times lay ahead.

Fresh (Sony '73, '95) Rating: A-
Sly's outlandish, hedonistic behavior continued, but he offered few apologies on songs such as "If You Want Me To Stay" ("for me to stay here I've got to be me") and "Skin I'm In" ("if I could do it all over again I'd be in the same skin I'm in"). Still, Sly attempts to get back to the good vibes of his earlier work, even reprising "Dance To The Music" on "Keep On Dancin'," though his cynical side also appears on socially conscious songs such as "Babies Making Babies" (though Sly's really not one to judge given his singing "auditions" on the last album). Anyway, he's mostly successful, though the sense of family that made his early albums so appealing is largely missing (yes, I'm referring to the departures of Larry Graham - who still plays bass on "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" and "If It Were Left Up To Me" - and Greg Errico). Musically speaking, there are some significant changes on this album. For one, these songs are molded around Rosie's moody piano and new drummer Andy Newmark's funky syncopated rhythms, and Freddie puts away his wah wah pedal to play more rhythm guitar. In addition, there's more sax than usual and lots of female backing vocals, plus Sly's voice often sounds different to me. Remember the guy from Cameo (best known for "Word Up")? Well, Sly sounds kinda like that guy on some of these songs, and his exaggerated vocal style takes some getting used to. Though the album is a lively affair, there's no anthems this time out, either, as Fresh is more a groove-based than song-oriented album. That said, there are some very good songs here. For example, the funky, multi-layered first cut, "It's Time," is flat-out impressive, the first single (which fared poorly, as this album had no hits) "If You Want Me To Stay" is a terrific funk pop number on which Rosie's tasty keyboards again hit the spot, and "I Don't Know (Satisfaction)" hits on a superbly sexy funk groove heavy on the female vocal hooks. Meanwhile, "If It Were Left Up To Me" is a simple, upbeat, sing songy ditty the likes of which Sly hadn't tried in awhile, and I absolutely adore the moody late night ambiance of Sly's improbable cover of Doris Day's "Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be"), which showed what a great singer Sly still could be. "Let Me Have It All" (a vocal showcase with a defiant chorus) and "Skin I'm In" (with its low-key gurgling groove and vintage Sly lead vocal) are other enjoyable album tracks, though I find "Frisky" to be a bit boring, "Thankful N' Thoughtful" overly repetitive, and "Keep On Dancin'" is obviously something of a retread. Still, the plusses here predictably overwhelm the negatives, as this is a very good album overall. However, by now I'd come to expect genius from Sly, and as such I found this merely really good album to be mildly disappointing, unlike underrated earlier albums like Dance To The Music and Life, whose consistent high quality slightly surprised me (given Fresh's higher standing among most critics). Alas, Fresh was as good as it would subsequently get for Sly & The Family Stone, as Sly’s fading genius would fade further under an avalanche of drugs.

The Essential Sly & The Family Stone (Sony '71, '95) Rating: A
Sly’s post Fresh career can be summed up in two words: “disappointing” and “unproductive.” Therefore, rather than wade into those waters, I decided to end this page with this 35-song, career encompassing compilation, which ends with the three best known songs from his post Fresh career (“Time For Livin’,” “Loose Booty,” “I Get High On You”). The rest of these two cds focus mostly on his ‘69-’71 heyday, including the three classic non-album singles that appeared on his original Greatest Hits album. The early albums are still underrepresented (A Whole New Thing and Dance To The Music being represented by a mere two tracks apiece), and my song selection would've been different (no “Que Sera Sera”?). Still, disappointingly flimsy liner notes aside (a problem with most of these otherwise excellent Essential releases), all of Sly’s biggest and best-known songs are here, and the sequencing makes perfect sense. The first cd presents a united Family whose upbeat, optimistic music made them darlings of the Woodstock era (helped by their flamboyant attire and energetic concerts), while the second cd showcases a much darker vision, with a drug addled Sly taking control of a fractured Family and producing uniquely moody, groove-based (actually, all of their music is groove-based) music that mostly still managed to be great. Simply put, Sly & The Family Stone were one of the best American funk-soul-rock (take your pick) bands ever, and all the evidence you need to build a convincing case is right here on these two cds. And if nothing else, Sly had one of the best Afros ever! Note: Although I don't feel like totally rewriting this page, I probably should've reviewed his Greatest Hits album instead of this one since I feel that not only is it Sly's best album (it's an easy A+) but that it's arguably the greatest "greatest hits" album of all-time. Plus, it perfectly sums up his "feel good" era before the darkness of Riot. Still, this is a superb compilation as well and since all of his Greatest Hits are here, you can just get this album and create a playlist of his Greatest Hits instead.

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