Sly & The Family Stone

Generally when an artist releases a box set, the fans are supposed to get excited, plunk down their hard-earned money, and eagerly snatch up the treasure trove. Personally, I tend to stay clear of these additions to my music collection. I am not swayed by the fact that there are 40 to 80 tracks (the majority of which I probably already own) — in addition to the lure of the "unreleased" and "alternate take" tracks. I don't really care if, oh say, the bass line is different than the previously released track, nor do I wish to hear something the artist (or record company) chose not to release. There must be a reason that a composition is not put on the finished product. Generally, it is because, well, it's just not that good. With all these factors taken into consideration, I was on the fence, in regards to listening to Sly and The Family Stone's four-disc box set, Higher!. Though I was eager to listen to the "familiar," I was dreading the "extras."

To my surprise, the majority of Higher is very close to being classified as top-notch. That's not to say there aren't a few misses here (and there is), but in all honesty, most of Sly's "worst" often ranks superior to most artists' "best." Influencing a legion of other musicians such as Parliament, George Clinton, Lenny Kravitz, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (natch), Sly and The Family Stone still do not truly receive the kudos the band deserves. Not forgotten, but yet, never truly a household name.

Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart) was born March 15, 1943, in Texas (one would have assumed, based upon his musical style, that he originated from Detroit). He managed to take a crop of different musical styles, i.e., funk, blues, soul, and psychedelia, and wrap them in a nice little bundle labeled rock 'n roll. Higher delivers more than its fair share of all of these styles. The 70+ tracks include Stone's early days (those are released in their original mono sound, rather than re-produced in stereo, therefore maintaining the true integrity of the track) and a chunk of what followed including some live performances in a set that covers virtually every aspect of the man's career.

Needless to say, there is a lot to listen to here. What may seem like a daunting task and a lot of music to absorb quickly becomes an addiction. You are so pulled into Stone's approach to music and insightful lyrics, that the listener becomes a bit obsessed. No matter how funky a track is, Stone managed to either outdo himself on the following track, or, at worst, maintain the same high energy of his compositions.

The first disc contains 20 tracks from 1964 to1967. This is not exactly Stone's best work; at least, not if you compare it to the later years, but, regardless stands on its own. "I Just Learned How To Swim" is Stone's first solo release (he was writing and producing for other artists up to this point), and "Buttermilk" is Stone playing all the instruments himself (organ, guitar, bass, and drums). Stone starts to show his virtuosity, and open-mind to all musical genres, with "I Can Not Make It." The song truly brings to life the style and musical identity that Stone would become known for. And, it may take a listen or two to realize it has all the characteristics of a county western tune! "Trip To Your Heart" is similar to the aforementioned "I Can Not Make It," but this time, with a heavy dose of Iron Butterfly-inspired psychedelia.

The second disc covers material from 1967 through 1968 when Sly and The Family Stone really came into their own. They found a musical groove, rarely swaying off the road, and keeping close to high gear at all times. Don't Burn Baby is an excellent example of the band at their funky-grooving best. So much so, it is easy for the listener to overlook the brilliant lyric writing by Stone. It is a plea for peace and understanding. Yes, we have heard that in music, so many times before, but the lyrical style of Stone is convincing, not patronizing, therefore the message is all the more stronger when coupled with brilliant musicianship, and catchy melody.

One of the band's biggest hits is here, of course, and that would be "Dance To The Music." It was suggested to Stone, to write material a bit more commercial. So he "simplified" a composition, and came up with this track. "Only Way Out Of This Mess" was a live staple for Sly and The Family Stone for many years before they recorded it. When the band finally did record it, the song was so familiar and road-tested it came off as more of a live track than something from a studio. You can definitely feel the "live" vibe to this song - the power, the intensity. It's definitely one of my favorite cuts. "I Know What You Came To Say" is another amazing song, very soulful and emotionally moving.

Disc three is the best of the set. "Everyday People" was the first single off the Stand! LP, with its B-side "Sing A Simple Song." This pair kicks things off. "Pressure" is very Beatles-inspired, while "Sex Machine" is a fast moving 13:46 minutes of soulful bliss. "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)" highlights bassist Larry Graham's thumping-and-plucking style. That's where Flea gets most of his influence from, by the way. Rounding out this third disc are some amazing live tracks. "You Can Make It If You Try," "Dance To The Music" and a medley of "Music Lover" / "I Want To Take You Higher" / "Music Lover (Reprise)" were recorded at the Isle of Wight Festival held on August 26 - 31, 1970. Though it's a tad bit sloppy at times, these live tracks are where the listener can truly hear the dynamics of the band fully in their element. The fact that the songs are not performed perfectly adds that level of rawness that many, such as myself, truly appreciate.

The fourth and final disc gives us more of the same, but you can start to feel a bit of boredom in Stone's music. Possibly, with so many mixing pots of styles, he started to run out of ideas. Perhaps there was too much demand upon himself to keep it fresh and creative and his enthusiasm waned. Of course, there were health issues and a strong addiction to drugs. What may have once inspired him was now defeating him.

There is a lot to say about Higher!, which also includes a 104-page booklet, jam-packed with insights from those that worked with Sly Stone. But to go any deeper would become redundant. You can only describe a track as "groovy," "funky" and "jazzy" for so long. Every track is heavily coated with these adjectives. The music is something one has to savor and discover on their own. The beauty behind Higher is you can listen to it repeatedly for weeks at a time, and still hear something you didn't hear before.

~ Bruce Forrest

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