No Sly Stone Left Unturned

One of the greatest funk artists of all time got a reissue set last year which finally justified his greatness. Though he has been a non-entity in the music world for many years, the music he created has endured and rightfully reveals him as one of the most talented, revolutionary artists ever to create music.

Sly and The Family Stone – The Collection

One of the most talented and eccentric performers in music gets his back catalog re-issued after years of fans begging the record company to give Stone’s work some attention. Thankfully, Columbia finally heard the din and decided to put a great amount of effort into doing this music justice. Not only does this set include all seven albums Stone and band recorded for the label (with added bonus tracks and great restored cover art for each CD) the job done on remastering is nothing short of excellent. The songs sound as bright and fresh as they did upon each album’s individual release. Though he only produced seven albums during his most fruitful period, these albums can be stacked up against anything else produced in the ’60’s (or beyond) and will compare favorably.

A Whole New Thing is the title of the aggregation’s debut but this album isn’t really a whole new thing at all, though signs of Stone’s future funk are evident. For the most part this album shows the band still plying a more traditional R&B style, albeit with some slight sonic innovations. It is in the lyrics where Stone’s genius pokes through as the topics are not your usual straight soul fare and delve into a few goofier places than the norm. Sounding more restrained than they would on later efforts, Stone’s band is funky and tight, but not nearly as tight or funky as they would become. Some rock touches give the feeling something different is happening, but it is not enough to rank this among Stone’s best. While a promising start, this album does not show enough of what made Stone and his group great. Luckily, those qualities would show up on later albums.

The band’s next album, Dance To The Music, not only provided the band’s first hit with the title track but also showed the band coming into it’s own. With an incredible feeling of joy and exuberance saturating the album, it is almost impossible not to get sucked into the spirit of the band. Though not really a classic album, it is hard to resist the band’s charms and what they brought to the popular music table. Remember, this is probably the first album ever made where the sunshiney-psychedelic feelings of the rock music at the time was mixed with pure soul music to create something totally different than anything that had come before. Everything, from the inventive arrangements to the sparking melodies and the hyped-up rhythms was fresh and new – and sounded that way. This, incredibly, is not the band’s best, but it is a damn fine album nonetheless.

The Family Stone’s third release, Life, came just a few months after Dance To The Music and features heavier, more psychedelic arrangements and much fuzzier guitars than it’s predecessor. Though there were no big hit singles from the album, the growth between the two releases is almost immeasurable. The songs show an accomplishment in songcraft that is astounding given the short time between the albums. Each song is a tight slab of funk perfection all its’ own, showing a seamless blending of instruments and vocals more intricate than all get out, yet still retaining a funky-dance feel. Instead of meaningless jams, Stone steered this album toward making each song a piece of genius. He succeeded mightily.

Stand comes next, and if listeners had thought Sly Stone and his band of funkateers had reached their pinnacle with Life, they were in for a rude awakening. Stand takes everything the band had perfected up to this point and raises it to another level. Not only does the band have an unmatched interplay, but the band’s increasingly deep psychedelic touches and effervescent melodies take the songs on sonic explorations previously unknown. Stone’s genre-blending innovations manage to blur all previous stylistic lines seperating various types of music and spurs the band to create an innovative sound all of it’s own. Added to the mix is an irrepressible social conciousness Stone would develop and expand upon on future albums. The title track, though, is a first example of the kind of social awareness Stone would soon bring to all of his music and is a standout, along with “Everyday People” and “I Want To Take You Higher.” This album is beyond great. It is a life-changing album to say the least.

There’s A Riot Going On is the beginning of a change in Stone’s music, and marks a change in mood for the band. Where the band’s previous albums were so upbeat you couldn’t help but smile while listening to them, this album marks a downturn in Stone’s mood as he seems to have become very jaded within a relatively short time span. While some have attributed the mood switch to Stone’s increasing drug problems, that is too simple an answer. What we have here is an album almost totally devoid of the pure joy found in the band’s previous works. Stone seems disgusted by all of the social unrest going on in the world at the time and seems intent on voicing his frustration in a series of songs that can only be called disturbing. While still immensely funky, there is a disconcerting level of depression and disappointment evident in everything Sly does on this album. Whatever had him, be it drugs or band pressures, he let it get the best of him on this disc. Not as bad album, mind you, just more bleak compared to Stone’s earlier efforts.

The band’s next album, Fresh, makes a move back to the fun of Stone’s earlier efforts, though it isn’t a total return to his previous form. A modicum of the joy is back in Stone’s music, however, and while traces of the dark cynicism pervading the band’s last album remains, Stone seems to have found some of his smile. The good humor is tempered by Stone’s remaining bitterness at the world’s ills, a fact the music on this album can never quite overcome. The difference here is Stone seems not to be as resigned to the world’s social problems and let’s a bit of hope seep through, though not much. Still, the funk here is really hot and this is considered Stone’s last great album.

The last album included on this set, Small Talk, is his weakest, mostly due to personnel problems in the Family Stone and changes within his own life including his marriage and the birth of his child. For the first time, Stone sounds tired instead of inspired, exurberant or angry. In fact, Stone sounds disinterested, although the album does have a few strong cuts. For the most part, this album is for fans only and is the last album containing any of the Sly Stone sound people associate with his music. From here on, even though he recorded other albums for other labels, Stone’s career went downhill and from listening to this album it is easy to see the inevitable coming. The song “Time For Livin'” is the standout cut on this album.

Fans of deep funk are just going to salivate all over themselves after checking out this great 7 CD box of some of the greatest booty-shaking tracks ever. Let’s face it – my reviews are loaded with hyperbole. I bathe in hyperbole and eat hyperbole crunch cereal for breakfast, okay? This is the one time – one time, dammit – that every thing I write is the total fucking truth. This is one of the greatest collection of funk tracks ever gathered on seven CDs. The craziest thing about it is one man is responsible for all of it! God bless you, Sly Stone. May you some day come back to us with your talent intact and ready to make great music again. There’s a light on in the window, Sly. Please come home.