Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Music Review: Sly and The Family Stone, "Higher!"

When record executives pressured Sly Stone into producing a hit single in 1968, mainstream audiences were rewarded with a new infusion of pop music - psychedelic soul. This new rock-infused genre of music, bending the beats of the old Motown sound with its reverberating guitar, druggy sound effects, and socially conscious lyrics, would become the blueprint many soul music acts would follow after Sly and The Family Stone's sudden popularity.

Sly and The Family Stone already had one critically acclaimed but low selling album under its belt -  1967's A Whole New Thing, but Epic Records, and particularly legendary company president Clive Davis, knew that composer and multi-instrumentalist Sly Stone was capable of much more.  Reluctantly Sly Stone went into the studio with his band of family and friends and did exactly what was asked. He produced a single that would appeal to the mass record-buying public.

Although the band wasn't particularly proud or happy with the recording, "Dance To The Music" rose to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became a big global hit record. Strictly designed for public consumption, the record was still a delicious blast of infectious drum beats, blazing trumpets, hot guitar licks, and a bass line so low and deep, it threatened to blow the batteries out of the tiny transistor radios it played on. Horn player Cynthia Robinson's raw and demanding vocal to "Get up and dance to the music!" lent an electrifying radical edge.

There was a collective dropped jaw as Sly and The Family Stone then showed up on American TV and viewers witnessed the first multi-racial, multi-gender popular recording act. They looked as if they had just beamed in from another planet. Sly Stone, wearing psychedelic sunglasses in a shirtless vest with gold chains and a towering Afro haircut, and Rose Stone, sporting a remarkably unnatural platinum blonde wig, were just a few of the fashion and cultural statements Sly and Family revealed as they crashed into American living rooms.

With the release of Higher! a 77-track 4-CD package that chronicles the history of the band, listeners can trace the evolution of black popular music from '60s Motown (The Supremes, The Temptations) to the emergence of funk (Parliament/Funkadelic), which opened the door to a host of expressionist styles of music including Afro-punk. Sly and Family's hit records ushered James Brown's "funk" into the popular record charts.

The CDs offer 17 previously unreleased tracks, two of which - live versions of "Stand!" and "You Can Make It If You Try" - unfortunately sacrifice the original studio versions. Also missing is the deep funk meditation of "Africa Talks To You" from There's A Riot Going On, an essential track in my opinion. This major fan would have loved to see the Sly Stone-produced Little Sister records included here, but I suppose record executives would remind us you can't have everything in one package. There is still a bounty of music here including several early Sly Stone solo recordings.

The hits are wonderful to hear again -  "Hot Fun In The Summertime", "Everyday People", "Family Affair" "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" - all possess a timeless immediacy,  sounding as fresh as the day they were released. The early less commercial recordings reveals a gritty, urban sound that certainly inspired Marvin Gaye to evolve from a crooner to a visionary.

Higher! comes with a 104 page booklet with rare photos and other memorabilia. Amazon.com is offering an exclusive 8 LP - 1 CD version of the release.

this article was first published by me at http://blogcritics.org/music-review-sly-and-the-family-stone-higher-four-cd-box-set/