Monday, May 30, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 108 - Sly and the Family Stone

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Listening to Stand! and There's A Riot Goin' On, the two most popular albums by Sly and the Family Stone, is like following a narrative of the decline of the 1960s counterculture. What starts as an emphatic call for change ends in a mire of drugs and disillusionment. 

Stand!, released in 1969, is brimming with optimism and vitality. Nearly all the songs are calls to action, and they're all upbeat and very dance-able. Just look at the titles, such as "You Can Make It If You Try," and "I Want to Take You Higher." It's a happy, hopeful album, and one that embraces the ever-elusive idea of "music that changes the world."

Yet by 1971, There's A Riot Goin' On had taken all of this and shattered it. Riot reads like the hangover to the party that was Stand! The songs are all slower and fuzzier. The liveliness that marked Stand! has been replaced with a worldweary attitude; the songs still have a sense of groove, but instead of one you can dance to, this groove sounds like it's been left out in the sun too long. The music slowly slinks along, and the anthems for social change have been replaced with songs like "Africa Talks to You 'The Asphalt Jungle,'" where the lyrics ask "Why live for dying?" and the chorus sings "Timber! All fall down!"

The highlight of Riot is "Thank You For Talkin' To Me Africa," which itself is a re-imagining of the 1969 single "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)." Where the original single was funky and energetic, the 1971 version is longer, slower, with ghost-like vocals and a groove that sounds like it might collapse under its own weight at any moment. The two tracks are the same song - same lyrics, same melody - but sound as different as night and day.

It's fascinating to look at how the same band can take the same material and use it in such different ways. There are any number of explanations for the band's descent into darker material, drug use being the most obvious candidate. But it makes for a very interesting contrast, and I liked exploring the darker side of the group this week. 

WEEK 108

ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Sly and the Family Stone

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Most of Sly's biggest hits are still in regular rotation today - "Everyday People" and "Dance To The Music" are two that I recognized immediately. But I hadn't explored the band's music apart from these songs. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to There's A Riot Goin' On (1971) every day this week. I also listened to Stand! (1969) and Fresh (1973) twice. Finally, I bent one of my rules and listened to the band's collection of Greatest Hits (1970), because it features many of the group's most famous non-album singles. 


Most of Sly and the Family Stone's most famous hits are pretty unassailable. Songs like "Everyday People," "Dance to the Music," "Hot Fun in the Summertime," and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)" have the perfect blend of fiery energy, catchy melodies, and a great, funky rhythm section (along with enough brass and saxophones to mix things up).

But while I liked these songs a lot, I found myself very impressed this week with how good Sly and the Family Stone was as a band, that could jam together. While "Everyday People" might get all the radio play, the thirteen-minute jam "Sex Machine" showcases a different side of the group - one that can make great music even without a catchy chorus. 

These jams are only played up in There's A Riot Goin' On, which relies less on lyrics than its predecessor. Some songs, like "Luv'n Haight," even use repeated lyrics as just another instrument within the jam. Others, like "Africa Talks to You 'The Asphalt Jungle,'" use mainly screaming and moaning. These songs sound more tripped out than the tight, catchy singles of Stand! and the Greatest Hits, but there's a lot more time to sink into the groove. Riot is a dark album, and the group sounds tired on it, but the music still holds up as some fine instrumental playing, even while it sounds like the lyrics are falling apart. 


"Family Affair" is evidently one the group's biggest hits, but I couldn't get into it. It seemed a strange addition to There's A Riot Goin' On, like the band trying to wedge a short catchy single into an album that had very little of it. It was one of the least interesting songs on the album for me. 

After the stoned murk of Riot, the band rebounded two years later with Fresh, as if Riot had never happened. Fresh has some good rhythms and builds on Stand! in several ways, but the catchy melodies are lacking and, more problematic, the energy just isn't there. "Que Sera, Sera" is the low point of this album, but there isn't really a song that sticks out as memorable; most, like "In Time," or "Thankful N' Thoughtful" sound all right but fade away as soon as they're over. 

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK: My previous listening had actually exposed me to more Sly and the Family Stone then I realized, because samples from the band's work were evidently very popular among rap groups circa 1989. "Brave and Strong" supplies the beat to the Beastie Boys' "3 Minute Rule" on Paul's Boutique, and "Poet" is the beat to De La Soul's "Description" on 3 Feet High and Rising. It probably says something about me and my generation that I was more familiar with these beats in this recontextualized music. Form your own conclusions.

"Dance to the Music"

"Sex Machine"

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Well, you caught me. I've been on a camping/road trip for the past two weeks, and though I'm headed home, I'm out of music. I might dig around my iPod and find an artist I haven't written about yet, or I might do a flashback or something next week. It'll be a surprise. Stay tuned!