Friday, May 22, 2009

May 22: Sly And The Family Stone, "Stand!"

Artist: Sly And The Family Stone
Album: Stand!
Year: 1969
Label: Sony

As we have previously discussed, certain artists are so heavily affiliated with their musical genre, that their names alone trigger the mood of said genre. Between the soul of James Brown and the psychedelic funk of George Clinton, there was the man who transformed the style: Sly Stone. Working beautiful, catchy melodies into peace and progress driven lyrics, all with brilliant funk and horn sections running underneath makes the music of Sly And The Family Stone simply irresistible. Marking the end of the first "era" of the bands' music, Sly And The Family Stone's 1969 release, Stand! is the more "accessible" of the bands' back to back musical masterpieces (we will discuss the other, the far more politically charged, There's A Riot Goin' On later in the year).

Sly And The Family Stone represent the archetype of rock and roll: honing their talent, building to worldwide success, and then completely crumbling under the pressure. Produced entirely by Sly himself, Stand! represents the moment in their career when the band broke through and became a headlining act across the globe. Truth be told, just three months after the release of Stand!, the band would steal the stage as arguably the finest act at the legendary Woodstock Music & Arts Fair. Stand! also yielded the bands' first #1 single, the often sampled "Everyday People" while the album itself reached #3 on the U.S. charts. Stand! produced an additional trio of high charting hits with "Sing A Simple Song," "I Want To Take You Higher," and the title track all finding commercial success. A small aspect of note on the album is that on the title track, it ends with a small "gospel" feel which is sonically different from the rest of the track. In fact, the final 50 seconds were recorded with "session" musicians, as a majority of the band was unavailable when Sly decided to finish the song.

Bringing together a full horn section, harmonica, and pianos, along with "standard" rock instruments helped to give Sly And The Family Stone a distinctive sound. However, it is truly the growling, thumping bass of Larry Graham that drives the sound of the band and served as the inspiration for later acts. In most other musical settings, the bass would be seen as overpowering, yet it is perfectly balanced against the rest of the instruments on the songs. The flawless horn playing of Jerry Martini and Cynthia Robinson keeps the songs bright and moving, as they show their talent all over the musical and tempo spectrum. Drummer Greg Errico has his work cut out for him, as Sly's compositions run everywhere in both style and speed, yet Errico performs masterfully on every track. It is the combination of this pounding bass and the bright, poppy horns that create a perfect fusion between funk and the irresistible melodies that Sly has constructed. Later on Stand!, the band dives head-first into a thirteen minute instrumental track, "Sex Machine," which is dominated by Sly delivering "scat" vocals through a vocorder. Each member of the band takes a extended solo on the track, and, while in most cases such a song would come off as self indulgent, the track stands as a psychedelic jam of epic proportions.

While Sly himself handles an overwhelming majority of the vocal work on each of the bands' records, it is the group vocal work and harmonies that further strengthen the stature of this legendary group. Sly's bassy voice glides perfectly all over each track, and the mixture of harmonies, lead vocals, chanting, and yelling from the rest of the band provides a beautiful sound and depth to their music. Lyrically, Stand! foreshadows There's A Riot Goin' On with a few politically charged social critiques with tracks like "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" and the aforementioned "Everyday People." The band also features the rather paranoid "Somebody's Watching You" which many see as an early indication of the approaching drug problems for Sly that would eventually lead to the demise of the band. However, Stand! also features some of the most enjoyable, fun songs of the entire decade. The oft-covered "Sing A Simple Song" and "I Want To Take You Higher" are flawless presentations of how the band perfectly melded their funk grooves with a delightful pop sensibility. It is this ability that makes the music found on Stand! a pure joy to experience time and time again.

While Jimi Hendrix and Santana may have come out of the Woodstock Music And Arts Fair with the most heavily circulated performances and most interesting stories, the fact is, the best performance of the festival belonged to Sly And The Family Stone. Featuring many songs off of their recently released Stand!, the band lit up the night and delivered a stellar, high-octane set. Led by multi-instrumentalist Sly Stone, the unmistakable combination of growling bass and bright horns make the music of Sly And The Family Stone nothing short of astonishing time and time again. Flawless musicianship, lyrics ranging from jovial to jarring, and wonderful vocal work truly set the band apart from others in a time when so many legendary bands were breaking into the mainstream. The middle child of a trio of brilliant recordings, Sly And The Family Stone's 1969 release, Stand! remains one of the greatest funk and pop records in history and is a refreshing musical experience each and every time you play the album.

Standout tracks: "I Want To Take You Higher," "Sing A Simple Song," and "Everyday People."

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