CD Review of Reissues by Sly & the Family Stone

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Buy your copy from Sly & the Family Stone:
A Whole New Thing
starstarstarno starno star Label: Epic/Legacy
Released: 1967
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Buy your copy from Dance to the Music starstarstarhalf starno star Label: Epic/Legacy
Released: 1968
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Buy your copy from Life starstarstarstarno star Label: Epic/Legacy
Released: 1968
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Buy your copy from Stand! starstarstarstarhalf star Label: Epic/Legacy
Released: 1969
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Buy your copy from There’s a Riot Goin’ On starstarstarstarstar Label: Epic/Legacy
Released: 1971
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Buy your copy from Fresh starstarstarstarno star Label: Epic/Legacy
Released: 1973
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Buy your copy from Small Talk starstarstarno starno star Label: Epic/Legacy
Released: 1974
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The record industry takes a lot of flak for the constant flood of reissues that has saturated the market virtually since the dawn of the CD, and this criticism isn’t entirely unwarranted; it’s exactly this sort of unimaginative thinking, after all, that has helped mire the business in its current sad state. On the other hand, certain reissues are damn near necessary – consider, for instance, that in a marketplace which offers consumers unlimited copies of The Essential REO Speedwagon, significant portions of the Sly & the Family Stone catalog have been out of print for years.

The band recorded a lot of important music during its peak, a fact most modern-day listeners are aware of – just as they’re probably unaware that the Sly Stone music with which they’re most familiar is limited to a handful of stray radio hits, mostly unrepresentative of what made the group matter. “Everyday People” and “Family Affair,” for instance, are wonderful songs – a point few would argue against – but they don’t really illustrate the ways Sly & the Family Stone changed musical history.

Which is sort of the problem with this stuff, really; this music’s real greatness is hard to appreciate out of context, and to modern ears accustomed to the sounds of acts influenced by these albums – acts which are truly legion – their trailblazing genius can’t help but be boiled away. To younger listeners, these will probably still be good songs, but a lot of them might sound sort of quaint.

There’s nothing anybody can do about that, of course, but it’s still a shame, because nobody blended rock, soul, R&B, and psychedelia like the band; in fact, it wouldn’t be a major stretch to say that nobody else did it, period. The first major integrated band of the rock era also helped bring trenchant social commentary to soul and R&B, essentially wiping the genres clean with 1969’s Stand! and 1971’s There’s a Riot Going On (whose title, it bears mentioning, was a response to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On). Thankfully, even if these records don’t sound as fresh as they did the first time around, they’re still, on the whole, pretty great.

Anyway, better late than never, and even if these seven titles should have hit the market long before The Essential Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, Legacy is still doing a good thing by getting them out now, complete with remastering and bonus tracks. Though a fair amount of the material will be deeply familiar to most adults with functioning ears, the set, as a whole, is something like a revelation – it’s never been this easy, or this rewarding, to trace the band’s thrilling rise and slow ruin.

The brightest jewels in the crown are still the group’s masterworks, Stand! and Riot, and those albums will inevitably generate the most interest, but there aren’t any dogs in this pack; though the band sounds slightly tentative on A Whole New Thing and atypically straightforward on Dance to the Music, both albums are worth owning. Likewise Fresh and Small Talk, the two post-Riot releases that found Stone struggling to hang onto himself in the wake of the bacchanalian sessions for that seminal album.

Hanging onto himself is something that, by most appearances, Stone has failed to do in the ensuing decades; his sparse concert appearances have made Brian Wilson look like a model of lucidity and dazzling stage presence. Forget about the Sly Stone with the blond Mohawk, though, and immerse yourself in a series of albums made when anything seemed possible – and by an artist with the talent to make it happen.

~Jeff Giles