Rantings, reviews and lists from a person who structures half his life around obsessing over music.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Sly And The Family Stone - There's A Riot Goin' On (1971)

5.0 ★/10.0

Parallel to the rise of social activism and civil rights protests of the 60's, Sly And The Family Stone was releasing the soundtracks of their time, with a triumphal fusion of soul, rock, R&B, psychedellia, and funk. They most successfully absorbed and represented the summer of love vibes on their 1969 classic, Stand!, which accurately defines the late 60's through a communal "shout-out-loud" style and clear addressing of politics. Listening to Stand! was a celebration, a call for revolution and no other album speaks for that period better. But the fact remains that the late 60's was essentially a big party. One with good intentions, but a party nonetheless, and every hard party has it’s hangover. The 70's began to loom over the horizon with all of this shining promise from the previous decade...and yet...nothing happened. And when time came for Sly's next album, there was no more radiating enthusiasm for revolution anymore. On the contrary, between the assassination of MLK and Malcolm X and a new population of drug addicts and abusers being formed, there was a real hopelessness permeating the social atmosphere.

The spirit of There’s A Riot Goin On resides in that era of shattered dreams and disappointments. The Family Stone was coming out of those few years of revelry in shambles. They had become pretty fixated on partying and drug usage and Sly in particular had developed major addictions, consequently arriving late to or sometimes completely missing shows. When he did appear, his behavior was erratic enough that people began to seriously worry about his mental health. He would act extremely paranoid, even of those close to him, and went as far as to hire bodyguards and gangsters to protect him. The recording sessions for his upcoming album were just as affected. Unlike previous albums, Sly was recording practically all of the instruments himself with overdubs. He holed himself up either in his mansion or his self-built studio and would rarely come out, often recording his vocals while being strung out on a bed or couch. He built every track on drum loops from a rhythm box rather than live drums and that only heightened the insular mood. Plus, he constantly missed deadlines. On his contract, Sly had owed Epic a new album at least a year, before he actually got it to the CBS studios. And it must’ve been pretty frustrating to have, after a full year of delay, received an album as hard to market or sell as Sly’s new creation.

Don't get me wrong, the tracks were packed to the gill with hooks. Just check out the mid-tempo single, "Family Affair", the light syrupy vibes of "You Caught Me Smilin" or the gorgeous bubble gum pop of "Runnin' Away", enunciated beautifully by Rose Stone. And the in-your-face pop-funk that "Brave & Strong" authors, would eventually become extremely popular (not to mention the song's rhythm, which would be excessively sampled by countless hip hop artists in the future). But the recordings themselves were so extensively over dubbed, re-recorded and edited that the mastered versions came out drenched in hiss and buzz. The songs didn’t jump out like everything Sly had done before, because the production rendered them dry and damp, more low-key than anything else. As a matter of fact, hooks aside, most of the songs don't really build up or move anywhere. After the opener, "Luv N’ Haight", introduces it's apocalyptic chorus, it gets right into the album's mission statement: "Feels so good inside myself, don’t need to move," Sly hollers in the slithery verse. Consequently, track after track is found just lingering in their hazy junkie holes. Between the sluggish bass, scattered moans, and formless guitar lines, you literally can almost hear the weed being puffed on the R&B ballad, "Just Like A Baby". "Time"'s impressive compositional shifts can't shake off the disorienting keyboard effects and lazy, strung-out Blues that make it the equivalent of smoking a blunt on a hangover. And "Spaced Cowboy" may have a serious descending progression, but the inclusion of yodeling and a harmonica solo add a "what-the-hell?" factor that could've only come out of narcotic influenced noodling. Overall, There’s A Riot Goin On is a stoned out, muddy, almost funereal, mess of an attempt at a hard funk album. And yet that very messiness lends it timelessness, because it’s perfectly appropriate. Sly was burned out, stoned out, and stingingly cynical and so was his music, portraying drugs as he was experiencing them: seductive and enticing medications that ultimately disrupt motivation and encourage alienation. The production was perfect for this state of mind and, combined with the soulful, free form funk grooves, spontaneous instrumental interplay and few smooth pop melodies, made the jarring and impenetrable There’s A Riot Goin On one of the most essential albums of the 70's, containing within it’s murky depths, the most chill, laid-back music you will ever hear. The sexy sounding bass and keyboards of "Poet", for example, oozes urban coolness. Despite being nothing more than an interlude, it's a major highlight because of how loose the recording feels. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to believe that the song came out of anything other than a warm up jam session. Which brings to mind the album's effortless centerpieces, "Africa Talks To You The Asphalt Jungle" and "Thank You For Talkin Me To Africa". Combined, these two epic jam sessions are the true icing on the cake that makes There's a Riot Goin' On so perfect. In the former, ensemble group vocals match and even surpass anything from Stand!, but are used for the complete opposite: to mock the hippies and idealists left over from the summer of love with a savage uproar of “Timmmmbeeer...all fall down!” In the latter, an infectiously head-bopping, thick bass driven, dirge-like tempo resides over the sun setting, while Sly and his group take a final bow to their fans who stuck with them all the way to the last track: “Thank you for letting me be myself!” In both tracks, guitar and keyboard are pushed to the front as they nervously pop and crackle, trading off impressively sharp and spastic lines throughout and competing with each other in fractured bursts of escalation and release.

But truly, every track on There’s A Riot Goin On is worth mentioning and examining. What really makes it a perfect album is simply the way it sounds and how that contributes to such a uniquely singular experience. The album’s drug-induced message is conveyed in every minute aspect of it. The way the bass endlessly jerks, while the guitar stumbles over it almost randomly, captures the state of altered mental activity perfectly. The song structures thrive on repetition that bounce and groove with the single-mindedness of someone who’s definitely on something. Sly’s lines and sentiments always make a strong case for laziness and the slacker generation. Yes, it’s weak and devoid of any sort of energy, but the charm lies in that Sly embraces that, and devotes everything on the album to defending it, with enough stunning clarity to author a masterpiece.

No comments:

"How many times must a man look up
before he can see the sky?"