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Music Review: Sly and the Family Stone – There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Remastered

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Sly and the Family Stone were once one of the happiest rock groups of all time – c'mon, listen to pioneering funk-rock tunes like "Stand," "Everyday People" and "I Want To Take You Higher" and tell me a smile doesn't break across your face.

But then something happened, and Sly Stone got into a funk. The result was an album that was a stark departure from the past, brooding, downbeat and solemn. That 1971 disc, There's A Riot Goin' On, is also one of their finest moments, a snapshot of a strange time in the American psyche. Vietnam-era disillusionment blends with the rise of the Black Power movement and thoughts of a long-ago homeland, Africa, creating a kind of concept album that could almost be subtitled, "death of the dream."

Now it's been remastered with crisp sound as part of Epic/Legacy's reissuing of the entire Sly and the Family Stone catalog. The new albums mark the 40th anniversary of Sly's first record deal, and all seven discs in the catalog also have new liner notes and bonus tracks.

The menacing, simmering, often murky drift of Riot threw off a lot of fans of the Family Stone. The lyrics are often barely audible, and even the cheery moments seem underlined by sadness. "Family Affair" is the album's only real hit single – and Sly's final #1 record – but even it has a bleary, forlorn quality. The strung-out, agonizingly pretty "You Caught Me Smilin'" is hardly the cheery jingle it might have been, recorded by the band a few years before. The lengthy seven minute-plus jams of "Africa Talks To You (The Asphalt Jungle)" or "Thank You For Talkin' To Me Africa" provide the center of Riot; brooding tunes that wind in and out around themselves in circles, spiraling down into the center of Sly's soul.

The remastered sound on the new disc is fantastic, rescuing the sound from the hazier limitations of the earlier CDs but still keeping that foggy gloom. There are also three bonus tracks – all untitled instrumentals that may not add anything essential to the album, but do provide some cool, cascading grooves.

Riot was recorded in a coke-bleached haze. "There was no real separation between life and drugs," one of the band's acquaintances has recalled. And Riot pretty much marked the end of the line for the Family Stone – much of the band soon left, and while two more albums, Fresh and Small Talk, followed, nothing like the acclaim of their earlier work came. Stone has been a virtual recluse since the 1970s. Maybe, in the end, There's A Riot Goin' On was the last thing he really felt like he needed to say.

It ain't pretty, it ain't really happy, maybe, but Riot still stands out as a melancholy ode to the 1960s and a dense, moody look at one man's crumbling soul.

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