Sly and the Family Stone
There's a Riot Goin' On
(Epic / Legacy)
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2007, Volume 14, #6
Written by John Metzger
Thu June 7, 2007, 05:45 AM CDT
Although its music moves along its path in a remarkably relaxed and effortless fashion, Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On is not an easy album to embrace, which undoubtedly explains why critics consider it to be his masterpiece, while fans seem to prefer Stand!’s sunnier refrains. In the two-year span of time from when Stone had commenced his work on Stand! to the genesis of the sessions that spawned There’s a Riot Goin’ On, a lot of water had flowed under the bridge — a lot of drugs did, too — and not surprisingly, his fifth outing was marinated in a feeling of disillusioned exhaustion.
In the months that preceded There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Stone’s behavior had become increasingly erratic. He frequently skipped out on his concerts, and when he did show up, he usually was very late. In what was a byproduct of their fame and their drug abuse, he and the members of his band no longer shared a residence, and the studio sessions for the album were fragmented and haphazard. Percussionist Gregg Errico, for example, found that his work had been augmented with a primitive drum machine, and bass player Larry Graham was left to overdub his contributions after the core tracks had been completed.
Sly & The Family Stone’s splintering meant that the 12 tracks that filled There’s a Riot Goin’ On — 11, really, since the title tune was present in name only — were born out of a sense of isolation. The energetic, exalted, and joyously funky atmospheres that had marked Stone’s early endeavors were gone completely. In their place were dark, heady grooves that were designed more for pensive, inward reflection than they were for dancing in the streets. The epitome of Stone’s altered approach was the drastically reworked and decidedly sluggish rendition of Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), which — rechristened as Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa — drew the outing to its conclusion.
Much like Stone’s music had undergone a metamorphosis, so, too, had his lyrics assumed a somber tone that mirrored his slow descent into the depths of his own mind. "Feel so good inside myself/Don’t wanna move," sang Sly repeatedly on Luv n’ Haight, the opening track from There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and his drug-induced sentiments perfectly expressed the mood that hung over the entirety of the affair. The optimistic, inspirational messages of his first four endeavors had been replaced with an aura of weary, disenchanted, and, at times, utterly incoherent rumination. There’s a give-and-take that emanates from within Stone’s desire to withdraw as well as his need to be saved. This internal battle plays out repeatedly as the set moves from the oppressive blues of Just Like a Baby to the bleak desperation that fuels Family Affair and from the extreme sadness that is masked (barely) by (You Caught Me) Smilin’ to Spaced Cowboy’s weird hybridization of reggae, country, and funk.
Without a doubt, There’s a Riot Goin’ On’s moodiness stood in stark contrast to Life. It was, in effect, its polar opposite, with Stand! having played a pivotal role in Stone’s transformation. Even now, it’s possible to hear him slowly slipping away as There’s a Riot Goin’ On progresses. Yet, there also is something haunted, something beautiful that arises from within its darkened interior. Though the set was drawn from Stone’s own struggles, it also was a reflection of the collapse of the hippie ideals that he had held so dear. Stone may have been confounded by everything that was happening around him; he may have been uncertain about whether it was even possible to heal the country’s wounds with his songs; and he may have numbed himself with drugs in order to hide from the pain of watching everything around him fall to pieces. Still, the depictions that he created for There’s a Riot Goin’ On, with both his lyrics and his music, offered an honest glimpse at his own humanity, and they revealed the manner in which the countercultural movement was rotting from within.
Of Further Interest...
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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