CD Review: Sly and the Family Stone

Sly and the Family Stone
There’s a Riot Goin’ On
By David Chiu

Sly and the Family Stone was one of the most important funk acts of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Fronted by the brilliant and eccentric Sly Stone, the Bay Area band generated infectious hits that carried a positive vibe and were emblematic of the times. Even after the group’s hey day had long since passed, its influence has paved the way for many a pop and funk act including Prince and Lenny Kravitz. In honor of the group’s 40th anniversary are reissues of the Family Stone’s first seven albums with bonus tracks —three of those albums here represented this interracial and multi-gender band at its artistic peak.

For those new to the band, Stand! (1969) is the quintessential Sly and the Family Stone album. “Everyday People” is rightfully a classic whose message of tolerance despite differences still is as timely and relevant as ever. The group can also be as downright funky and defiant as was the case on the three-part vocals on the tough-sounding “I Want to Take You Higher” and the trippy epic “Sex Machine,” complete with wah-wah guitar. Not much talked about these days, Stand! deserves to be in the pantheon of the other albums from the ‘60s.

And yet things take a rather dark turn on There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971)—a stark contrast to Stand! The album conveys the mood of the nation exhausted by the tumult of the previous decade. The funk was still evident although there was not much of that bright-sounding sheen, and the lead vocals seem relegated to the background—tracks such as “Spaced Cowboy,” “Africa Talks to You,” and “Time” convey the somber, acid-soaked weariness on the record. Only “Runnin’ Away” and another classic, “Family Affair” provide some light in the darkness. Moving and jarring at the same time, it is quite understandable why Riot is considered a masterpiece.

Writer Toure in his liner notes to Sly’s next album, Fresh (1973), described it as the band’s last great album. It was for the most part a back to basics approach after Riot, although Fresh sounds somewhat tempered compared to Stand! (Part of the difference in sound might be also explained by the departure of bassist extraordinaire Larry Graham and drummer Gregg Errico). There are still some of the slinky funk like “Frisky,” “In Times,” and “If You Want Me to Stay” and elegant tunes such as the subdued cover of “Que Sera Sera.” As Toure indicates, Fresh seemed like a goodbye from Sly–the end of a great era.

Also available: Life, Dance to the Music, Whole New Thing, Small Talk, The Collection


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