Sly & The Family Stone - Collection

Consider this rambling semi-review the confession of a Sly & The Family Stone newbie, because I'm guilty of neglecting the full scope of this band's work. Any "Slyologists" reading this, you've been warned! Throughout the course of checking out this box set, I realized that I had been missing out on a lot of incredible sounds that I somehow never got around to appreciating. In researching these albums and the band's history, I discovered a musical entity as influential and progressive as any other, even The Beatles.
Thanks to the stunning clarity of the music and the revelatory liner notes of this 7-CD set, the listener can get a sense of what it was like to anxiously await the next album from Sly Stone and thusly dig in to the new sound. Having been a radio DJ, the man certainly knew what he was doing. The sensibilities he garnered from so much musical exposure made his songs a combination of the best elements from popular music of the day, and through them the band achieved one of the most notable stylistic fusions ever created. Throughout the 7 albums and dozens of bonus tracks, you'll hear foreshadowing of popular music from the last 40 years. The careful listener will witness over a dozen beats, vocals, or melodies that have been sampled for hip-hop tracks, and feel the funky flower-power vibe that inspired generations of artists like Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Parliament Funkadelic. Everyone from Sufjan Stevens to Steely Dan seems to have been influenced in one way or another by Sly's slinky funk and creative, genre-crossing embellishments. No matter what band or style of music you hold most dear, you'll undoubtedly hear a piece of them somewhere along the journey of this box set. The songs you know and love are here, of course, like "Fun," "Stand," "Everyday People," and "Dance to the Music." But remember that behind every great song is an album, and the context of the original works makes these highlights shine even brighter. From the audacious, puzzling 1967 debut A Whole New Thing to the measured funk craftsmanship of their legendary fourth album Stand, the listener is taken through an evolution that encompasses the sound of late-sixties soul. If you listen to this set while sticking to the original chronology, it gradually reveals the glory of the sixties recordings and the drastic changes in music and life at the onset of the 1970's. A Whole New Thing is the genesis, the frantically-bottled sound of a ripping live band that delighted hippies and R & B fans alike in the Bay Area. Larry Graham's thwonking bass provided the backbone for a spirited soul fusion that Sly channeled through his family members Freddy (guitar) and Rose (keyboards), as well as the horn section of Jerry Martini and Cynthia Robinson and drummer Gregg Errico. While the album was a commercial flop, no one can deny its importance. Soon Sly and The Family would keep changing the face of music with each passing album and find worldwide acclaim for doing so. The second album birthed one of pop music's greatest singles and cemented Sly as a true innovator. With lyrics that stuck it to the man and stuck inside your head and music that would set the stage for a whole echelon of imitators, Dance To The Music found the band moving into even heavier rhythms and pulling from even more genres, fusing gospel, blues, jazz, rock, and soul into one almighty superpower of style and sound. They followed this sweet sophomore platter with the criminally ignored Life, which boasts the irresistible track "Fun." While it didn't produce a hit single (which was THE standard for success at the time), Life nonetheless stands as the most cohesive and musical of the band's first three records. The solid sound and polished performance found on Life would manifest itself even more profoundly on the band's fourth album, Stand. The unquestioned peak of their catalog, 1969's Stand is everything one could ask for in soul music. Not only did Stand produce four major hits (the title track, "I Want To Take You Higher," "Everyday People," and "You Can Make It If You Try"), it became the standard by which the band (and others like it) would be measured. It's pretty perfect all the way through, containing the ubiquitous hits as well as the 13-plus-minute instrumental "Sex Machine," the thumping "Sing A Simple Song," and the inflammatory "Don't Call me Nigger, Whitey." This track would prove to be Sly's nod to the growing racial tensions that helped push the euphoric 1960's aside in exchange for the paranoid buzz of the early 1970's. Just after Stand, the band produced three of their greatest songs: "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again)," "Hot Fun In the Summertime," and "Everybody Is A Star." The results of a creative zenith that lasted 5 years, the tracks never made it to an album because of the chaos that would surround the group in the coming years. Music has rarely reflected life as keenly as it did in the late 60's and early 70's, and Sly & The Family were nestled near the pulse, involved heavily in the hippie drug scene as well as the militant social cause of the Black Panthers. As their first quartet of albums reflected the good vibes and power-to-the-people sentiment of the heady Haight days, their fifth one, There's A Riot Goin' On, displayed a drastic change in attitude. Perhaps most important to this change was that Sly himself had become increasingly volatile, living the rock star life and not paying much attention to his bandmates. Having gained worldwide fame as a songwriter and producer, his ego grew intolerably large. Relations between the band members, particularly Graham and Sly, deteriorated quickly. Racked by uncertainty in his personal and professional life, Sly left miles of tape behind him, recording music that was unfocused and had no foundation, and doing that only when he felt the urge. No one working with him knew if any of it would ever amount to anything. He even abandoned his band at times, using studio musicians to achieve his desired effect or erasing their parts and playing them himself. Eventually, through the chaos, an album began to creep out. There's A Riot Goin' On is a far cry from the tight funk snap and coordinated elements that make Stand and Dance to the Music revered classics. However, the passage of time has revealed that Riot is as important as any of Sly's albums. There's even a prevailing critical sentiment that it is THE most important Sly album. While that is arguable, there's no denying that Riot helped breed a new kind of music, a dark, druggy, spacious sound that shunned formulaic song structure. The rhythms are slowed down and more space is devoted to the sublime groove and less to shiny arrangements. Experimentation abounds, vocals are loose and ghostly, and the songs seem to rise through a smoke of deep trouble and reservation. There's A Riot Goin' On is a highly influential record spawned by personal turmoil and social change that has had a lasting effect on music and helped birth funk as we know it. Over the next year, the Stone, now one of the most important bands in the world, would lose its foundation. Errico quit shortly after Riot and Graham, whose bass work had helped define the band and an entire genre, finally split after a long spat with Sly. Despite the hardships, the last two albums the band would release are two of the building blocks of modern-day soul, funk, and R&B. Fresh found Sly working as more of a leader than ever, employing bassist Rusty Allen's technically sound playing and utilizing the band as he would a studio crew. It's all Sly, from the artwork to the minimal instrumentation, and therefore surpasses all previous efforts in the category of straight-up funk. A true moment of songwriting genius is present on Fresh, the timeless "If You Want Me To Stay," which hints at Fresh being the band's last album. For some reason Fresh and the album that actually turned out to be their swan song, Small Talk, are not as highly regarded as Sly's seminal 60's output. Perhaps this Collection will help dispel that notion, because both are just as important as Stand, albeit in different ways. Fresh signaled the onset of a new kind of R&B, and Small Talk is perhaps the most shockingly different album of the whole catalog. Recorded with loose abandon, the album breathes with the spontaneity of a group setting. Chatter and unguarded moments are left intact. Small Talk is perhaps more musically revelatory than any of the albums. Several songs are augmented with strings, and the album hints a few years early at the lush sound that would become Disco. Save the four-on-the-floor drums, all the elements are there - dramatic strings, danceable rhythms, and female vocals intact. Perhaps even more eye-opening for the first time listener are the moments of unabashed fusion, driven by the violin of Sid Page, that truly show how far Sly was willing to go as an innovator. Small Talk might not have had the cultural impact that Stand and Riot did, but the musical impact cannot be measured. Small Talk was big news for music. The track "Loose Booty" alone has had an immeasurable influence on R&B and hip-hop. This limited-edition box set is simply essential. Not only are the CDs individually numbered, but each album is engrossing to digest, featuring plenty of great essays and photos. As for the bonus tracks, the most memorable ones are the instrumentals and some of the most interesting come from the post-60's output. "Positive" from the Small Talk sessions is a heated funk improvisation, while the outtakes from There's A Riot Goin' On capture some experiments with drum machines and synthetic sounds. Even as the band was on its way out, they were still innovating. Though there's certainly a time and place for every band - and 1967 - 1974 was The Family Stone's time - one wonders just how much further they could have gone. --Bryan Rodgers