Sly and the Family Stone
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2007, Volume 14, #8
Written by John Metzger
Mon August 20, 2007, 05:45 AM CDT
Make no mistake, Sly and The Family Stoneís sixth disc Fresh is a notch below the groupís twin gems Stand! and Thereís a Riot Goiní On. Despite the conditions under which it was created, it still proved to be a remarkably strong and durable effort, and it ought not to be quite as overlooked and overshadowed by its predecessors as it customarily has been. Although its title might have been meant to imply otherwise, Fresh was not a bold, new beginning for the band. Instead, it was Sly Stoneís final hurrah before he tossed the world from his shoulders and slipped deeper inside himself; it was the sound of his mustering the strength to be a catalyst for change as well as to say a proper goodbye to his fans.
Resolving the tensions within his group by replacing drummer Gregg Errico and bass player Larry Graham with Andy Newmark and Rusty Allen, respectively, Stone shook off at least some of the weariness that he had exhibited on Thereís a Riot Goiní On. The drum machines remained, and the new rhythm section was more timid and restrained. Yet, the material on Fresh sounded less stuporous and more alive. It also benefited from Stoneís more eclectic approach as he mixed the laid-back funk of Let Me Have It All with the jazz ínĎ soul textures of Skin Iím In, while also offering a gospel-inspired interpretation of Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).
Just as Luv Ní Haight had set the tone for Thereís a Riot Goiní On and much like Stand! had been defined by its title track, the gritty funk of In Time conjured the mood that hovered over everything on Fresh. "I switched from coke to pep, and Iím a connoisseur," Stone sang in recognition of his battles with drugs. He also acknowledged his delayed performances ("Haay, stay around ó get a show in time, donít you know") as well as the length of time between his albums ("Two years too long to wait"), and he alluded to his impending withdrawal from public life ("And thereís a wreck in the mind of a quitter / In time ó in time gonna git bitter"). On If You Want Me to Stay, he continued to lay the groundwork for his self-imposed exile ("Count the days, and Iím gone"), while also making a final plea for his socially conscious songs to make a difference ("I wish I could get this message over to you now").
Beginning with Skin Iím In, the latter half of Fresh is, in fact, a single-minded statement, in which Stone utilized familiar cultural signposts to make his point. He cleverly twisted the raw sexuality of the Rolling Stonesí (I Canít Get No) Satisfaction into I Donít Know (Satisfaction)ís commentary about the continued racial divide. To a lesser effect, he turned his own Dance to the Music into the lazy groove of Keep on Danciní, though the sharply directed expressions that he outlined on If It Were Left Up to Me leant the former song greater weight and meaning.
Although Stone sporadically continued to record for another decade, the rest of his albums lacked the heartfelt inspiration of his heyday. He tried to mount several comebacks in the í80s, too, though his drug addiction combined with an assortment of legal problems kept him from gaining any traction. In the past 20 years, Stone has broken his seclusion only momentarily, first to appear at the 1993 ceremony that marked his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and then for a strange and unfortunately lifeless appearance at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards. Meanwhile, rumors that Stone was working on new material have circulated on occasion, though it also has been reported that he later erased all of the tapes that he had made. The issue, however, is not whether Stone will return ó what matters more is whether he still has the focus and the drive to create works that are equally brilliant. To do anything less at this stage certainly would be viewed as a failure. Either way, his numerous hits as well as the material that was featured on Stand!, Thereís a Riot Goiní On, and Fresh will suit his legacy just fine.
Fresh is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box