Monday, May 14, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #205 - Sly & The Family Stone - There’s A Riot Goin’ On

There are certain records that for a variety of reasons fall into the category of inexplicable. Something in the writing or the recording process makes it live outside the rules by which we normally judge albums. What are some examples? Can’s Tago Mago, Brian Eno’s mid-70’s vocal albums, Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind, Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah to name a few (although admittedly these albums are few and far between, which is ultimately why they are inexplicable). The king daddy of this type of record though is Sly & The Family Stone’s 1971 masterpiece There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
From the very first notes, we realize we are in an alternate universe. Thick, warm, analogue (this is an album to listen to on vinyl if you can get it) notes burble out like velvet, pouring from your speakers, as Sly straddles the universes of soul and rock, essentially inventing funk as we listen (we’ll let James Brown and George Clinton in there too). The songs all seem like clouds passing in front of Sly’s window that he is trying to grab, but they dissipate just as he gets his arms around them. The hits on this album – “Family Affair,” “You Caught Me Smilin’,” and “Runnin’ Away” – clock in at about 3 minutes each, yet each one feels like an epochal leap forward in the evolution of conscious soul. That’s part of the inexplicable nature of this album - time seems to come unglued; there is no sense of normal song length and structure, even though most of the actual songs (save two) are short. By all accounts the recording process was chaos, with Sly, rolling in dough and high as a kite, inviting friends (like Miles Davis, Bobby Womack and Billy Preston) to his rented home studio for days-long sessions that seemingly were producing nothing but enormous studio bills. Credits were not kept, tapes were erased, Sly himself overdubbed other people’s parts. However, Sly was indeed sly and as one of the most experienced and talented producers of the 1960’s, he took this molten insanity and turned it into a cohesive work of startling originality. There are no credits on the album, just a bunch of photos that capture the era, and this just adds to the inexplicability of the album.
Every single song on this album is worth inspection, so let’s look at each one:

“Luv N’ Haight” – a wink-wink to the counterculture - it was issued as a single, and it sets the stage beautifully for this album. Disembodied vocals and keyboard jabs punctuate the roiling bass line. Like many of the songs on the album, it lacks traditional song structure, but rather takes a pounding beat and turns it into a statement.
“Just Like A Baby” - a bit more conventional structure, but still way out. A ballad with a classic slow funk burn. It highlights Sly’s incredible sense of restraint and subtlety. He doesn’t let the languid beat out of his sight for one second. And he resists every temptation to rev the song up into something other than what it is: perfection.
“Poet” - Sly was using a primitive drum machine on some tracks, and it is remarkably effective in combination with the airy sense of the songs and his spare keyboard parts. Again he shows amazing restraint in keeping a lid on this track. It feels like it could explode at any second, but instead it keeps an amazing shuffle groove going under the self-referential lyrics.
“Family Affair” - One of Sly’s greatest hits, it touches on issues of race and love and relationships in a poetic and beautiful way. The backing track boils along like a coffee percolator, with Sly giving a great vocal and his sister Rose providing amazing counterpoint vocals. A true classic.

“Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle’” - Side one closes with this almost 9-minute titanic shot of funk. All the parts lock together like some crazy psychedelic jigsaw puzzle, amazing bass playing up front competes with Sly’s woozy vocals as guitar scratches and tasty keyboard fills lurk around every corner. Like a Miles Davis cut, this sounds like it was extracted from some other endless jam, and in its own context succeeds magnificently as mountain of rock-solid funk. Once again, the theme of this album is restraint. For someone taking mountains of drugs, Sly had an incredibly cohesive vision for what this album was going to sound like. And as such, it stands as an album like no other he made. It isn’t a collection of songs - it is a sound statement.

“Brave & Strong” - Side two starts upbeat with a lurching bass line playing hide and seek with punchy horns and a typically indescribable Sly vocal. More than any singer I can think of Sly influenced a new generation of singers. He, like James Brown, reveled in his own unique ethnic brilliance. He wasn’t trying to fit in mainstream society, he was pointing to a place of pride in who you actually were.

“(You Caught Me) Smilin’” – The most irresistible track on the album, it also jumps like an actual hit single. Slap bass, one of his best “up” lyrics, horns that seem to come from the heavens like heralding angels, and classic Sly keyboard work. When I want to turn somebody onto this artist, this is one of the first songs I play them.

“Time” - Another slow, one might even say torturous, ballad. This song again shows off Sly’s vocal mastery above a simple drum machine beat and subtly placed keyboards, proving that less is more.

“Spaced Cowboy” - The most fun track on the album, and possibly in his entire catalogue, this song contains one of the most hilariously deranged vocals (including the great “soul-yodel”) placed squarely over a driving funk beat. An absolute must for mix tapes.

“Runnin’ Away” – irresistible, guitar-driven little ditty that is deceptive in its simplicity. It is actually an incredibly clever bit of writing that might not have sounded out of place on a Fifth Dimension album. Prescient lyrics that seem more relevant today than ever.

“Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa” - A monster! This is the demo version of Sly’s earlier hit “Thank You For Lettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Agin.” It is over seven minutes of pounding, perfect funk. Poppin’ bass, funky clavinet, a loping beat and Sly giving his best half-lidded hipster vocals. It is a foundation piece of all funk.

The overall effect of this album is like getting in a time machine and ending up in 1970 Los Angeles, wandering down a street at dusk, soul music blares from a window here, the thud of a truck there, raw emotional feelings of race, sex, drugs, politics seems to bubble up from the pavement. You drop to one knee, stick your ear to the ground and the inexplicable sound you hear is There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
-         Paul Epstein

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