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Sly Stone's dark masterpiece.
on May 16, 2007
Sly and the Family Stone's "Stand!" was an album of optimism and the brightness of '60s counterculture, but creeping just below the surface on that record was a darkness and claustrophobia-- an edge that separated "Stand!" from any of its predecessors or its peers. That darkness is the sound of "There's a Riot Goin' On", Sly Stone's bleak masterpiece, in its way the sound of civil unrest and, in my assessment, the greatest funk album ever recorded.
When I speak of claustrophobia, I mean it as a production vaue, and it's something evident throughout the record. There's a density to the record, even on the looser and less arranged pieces, that really sets the tone for the album. And while not all the album's songs have a message to match this claustrophobia, it does have a tendency to make even the optimistic material sound like you're trying to remember a dream after you've woken up. Take single "Family Affair"-- it's loose, based around a gentle pop vocal hook and is presented with a smooth baritone lead, but it sounds like "Stand!" dragged through the mud. It works out fantastically. All of this is accentuated by the tendency to move towards funk vamps for everything-- sometiems as much as seven minutes of the same riff feeds into this feeling of density.
But really, it's dark funk that dominates the record throughout-- wah wah guitars, dirty basslines, snapping horns, and Sly Stone vocalizing and singing all over the map, fierce and at times nearly out of control-- opener "Luv N' Haight" and Brave & Strong" are two fine examples of this. Along the way, he manages occasional moments of delicate beauty with a hint of melancholy that keeps the album from being a bit too bleak ("Poet", "(You Caught me) Smilin'") and closes things up with a recasting of "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" as a slice of slow funk that somehow manages to be as intriguing as the original.
This reissue remasters the record, appends a handful of bonus tracks (a single mix of "Runnin' Away" and three instrumentals leftover from the sessions) and includes a nice liner notes essay. The remastering alone makes this a worthwhile pickup, all the dark beauty of the record really comes forth and the feeling of the record is, if anything accentuated by it.
Truthfully, "There's a Riot Goin' On" may not be for everyone, it's a pretty dark record, but it's also the kind of thing that can really reinvent someone's opinion of Sly & the Family Stone (it certainly reinvented mine). It also serves nicely as a companion to "Stand!", they are very much opposite sides of the same music. I give a slight edge to "There's a Riot Goin' On" as Sly Stone's masterwork. This is essential listening.