Sly and the Family Stone’s 1970 Greatest Hits album is an essential collection with no filler. Box sets have filler by design, but filler can tell a story. The four-CD set Higher! tells the story of a pop genius whose voice struggled to overcome early influences until all the pieces finally came together for an original R&B-rock hybrid. Then he fell apart.
Early tracks on disc one are alarmingly derivative. “Buttermilk Part 1,” from 1965, sounds suspiciously like the 1964 Nanker Phelge original “2120 South Michigan Ave,” which is probably no coincidence since “Satisfaction” is quoted in the organ line on the very next track. The Sly rhythm starts to come in around “Temptation Walk,” but it doesn’t get much higher.
Hints of classic Sly are intermittent on the first disc: a break in “Advice” looks forward to one of his greatest hits, “I Cannot Make It” has the kind of immediate hook and strange rhythmic turns that made Sly’s best work. But in the mid-1960s his lyrical flair clearly hadn’t hit its mark, as evidenced by the embarrassing ballad, “Silent Communication.” This is not essential music, but you can hear Sly’s gift evolve from unremarkable R&B to more original rhythms, to the perfect alchemy of song and rhythms and social commentary that marked his career high.
The collection title Higher! sums up Sly’s central metaphor: a musical high achieved through music and love. “I Get High on You” is a psychedelic Pepper-pomp track that’s one of 17 previously unissued. It sounds like an R&B outtake from The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request.
Suddenly, on disc two, “Dance to the Music” brings it all together, minus the social consciousness. The set includes a mono single mix of this and many other of Sly’s best-known 1960s tracks. It’s as close as you can get to imagining what this sounded like on AM radio back in the day. “Ride the Rhythm” follows in stereo with a great drum track, the shift from mono to stereo a nice way to show the expanded pop landscape that Stone worked toward. From here the set is solidly grounded in the kind of rhythms that could only come from Sly Stone, but the box set mentality that includes everything means it’s not the most coherent collection. Then again, it’s that very collectors’ mentality that includes both sides of a wonderful 45 credited to The French Fries, “Danse a La Musique.”
The hits keep on coming on disc three, but even that’s stalled by long jams like “Sex Machine” (unrelated to James Brown’s) and a live set from the Isle of Wight, which starts off with a weak “Stand” but grows stronger. The final disc starts with Sly at his creative peak but charts Stone’s speedy mid-1970s decline. Fans of Sly and the Family Stone will want to hear everything on this four-disc set and will eat up the lavish 104-page booklet, but there are few revelations here for anyone who already has the classic albums.Powered by Sidelines