Read my reviews of albums by Sly and the Family Stone:
1967: A Whole New Thing (???)
Somehow I’ve never heard their debut. Read my reviews of albums released in 1967.
Sly & the Family Stone albums from 1968:
Dance to the Music (7/10)
It’s easy to understand why this band captured everyone’s attention; though the music is undeniably funky for the era, and soulful, there’s also enough of other elements that it’s accessible to people who would not have listened to James Brown or Stax or what have you. It’s significantly less psychedelic than I assumed it was, but that’s pretty typical of a lot of music from 1967 and 1968, which broke from traditional pop rock rules, but was not actually psychedelic. It’s a compelling fusion, though it definitely skews more to the soul and funk side, than the rock side. I want to like it more than I do.
The reason for that is because the material is not great. Aside from the title track, which is an absolute classic, most of the songs here are not very memorable. I can recall the other hit single after I listen but most of the rest of it I can’t really recall once I’ve stopped listening to it. And it’s repetitive, too, as they re-use a couple ideas.
And that’s a shame, because the conceit is relatively novel (though they obviously did it on their debut too) and because this band is very good – it’s no wonder they have these fill showcases, as they are all strong musicians.
Much like Dance to the Music, this is a well-played record that lacks quality songs. I find myself with a bit of deja vu.
Sly and the Family Stone are an excellent group of musicians; everything is so well-played and executed. And if I didn’t say so in my review of their previous album, some of this is from the performers of course, but the songs are also really well arranged. There are so many ideas in the arrangements, it’s really easy to understand how this and their other records were a big deal. This is a band that manages to be both innovative and fun at the same time, which is a rare thing indeed.
But again, Sly’s songs are just not great yet. I think they are probably better than the songs on Dance to the Music, and certainly the goofy ones are goofier and better as a result. But there’s nothing here that’s a classic, like the earlier album’s title track (referenced here, as it is on many of their records), and though the overall consistency of the songs may be better, there isn’t really a standout. (Also, the lyrical influence of Zappa is, um, surprising.)
At this stage this is still a band I want to like more than I do; rather I like the band but not the material and I think they were still waiting on their main songwriter to write better material for them, which would happen but it hasn’t happened here.
1969: Stand! (9/10)
I think my biggest problem with all the early Family Stone albums I’ve heard is a lack of consistent material. Because, otherwise, they’re a truly great band with a unique sound fusion and sound, full of truly capable musicians. But on the previous records, nearly all the songs outside of the singles felt lazy (or just not good) or sometimes even derivative of the hit.
But that’s not a problem here, as they’ve finally got an album’s worth of good material to play with. It’s like they’ve finally reached their potential as a band, because you’re no longer enjoying the arrangements and performances but getting annoyed at the lyrics (or lack thereof) or the melodies that sound too similar.
The sound is very much still the same – a mixture of soul, funk psychedelia and other forms of rock. There’s one noticeable difference to my ears, which is the presence of an amplified harmonica as a lead instrument in the jam sections. (I think it also has a pedal on it sometimes.) This adds another feature that makes the band even more distinctive. It’s a nice touch.
The one criticism of the record I have is one that is common to so many albums from the time period – when the jam, they do it too damn long. Specifically on “Sex Machine,” the jam isn’t necessarily that inspired – I would say these musicians are great at playing songs and brief fills but not necessarily at improvising long solos – and it just gets boring. I also sort of forget it’s the Family Stone and start thinking I’m listening to some kind of sub proto Funkadelic thing.
But that’s a minor nitpick for what is otherwise their best album to date.
There’s a Riot Goin’ On (10/10)
I was only familiar with this band from listening to Oldies Radio too much when I was a kid, and from borrowing a Greatest Hits compilation from my dad some time in the last 15 years. Neither of those things could have prepared me for this record.
I don’t know that there was much precedent for a major artist releasing such a drugged-out, angry, confused, murky, dense record. The only comparison I can think of is Neil Young’s “Ditch Trilogy,” and that was recorded well after this record. The fact that this way made when the band was so popular – and that it somehow topped the charts – is just bonkers.
Maybe listening to more contemporary funk might have prepared me for this, but I don’t know if there was anything like this being recorded within that world. It’s hard to imagine anyone, but maybe James Brown (who would have made it more energetic), recording something like this earlier.
It’s clear to me this record has had a massive influence, particularly on Miles’s records in the ensuing years, but certainly on tons of other bands and artists.
Just a remarkable thing.
Tied for my #1 album of 1971. Read my reviews of albums released in 1971.
1973: Fresh (7/10)
I don’t know enough about the history of Sly and the Family Stone to know whether or not There’s a Riot Goin’ On was something sustainable on an emotional level – I suspect it wasn’t – or a commercial level. But this record feels like a major step… not back, exactly, but to the side, or at least very much away from the previous record, one of the best records of the 1970s.
It feels that way for many reasons:
- The music sounds less sophisticated and more traditionally funky than that record.
- The lyrics of the original songs are (mostly) not as topical as that record, or at least not directly topical as the previous record. There are even some lyrics that directly quote old Family Stone songs. (These callbacks are perhaps the clearest indication that there is some kind of concerted effort to move on from or away from Riot.)
- And the production is considerably cleaner, with more in common with the ’60s version of the band, or some contemporary funk bands in the ’70s.
This is a pretty good funk record, with catchy enough melodies and a really strong groove on most of the tracks. But it pales in comparison to its predecessor, a success which probably couldn’t have been duplicated anyway.