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Music Review: Sly & The Family Stone – There’s A Riot Goin’ On

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Summer 2010 has proven to be quite a long, hot, and incredibly hazy experience. The days are long and the heat has been damn near unbearable. And yet, to get us through all that, we always have music. And on the hottest, haziest, most languid of days, there is always the musical equivalent of a day that feels like it’s moving through hot molasses: Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On.

 

Recorded and released in 1971, There’s A Riot Goin’ On was the follow up to the hugely successful Stand! which was released in 1969. While Stand! had been an exuberant and mostly celebratory affair, Riot was dark, paranoid, and strange. It housed all of Sly’s inner demons and documents a supremely talented man on the verge of complete madness. Not that Stand! was all that innocent either as an ever growing sense of paranoia seemed to creep in from the sides and the sound of the band was given a harder, more defiant edge. Still, whereas Stand! sounded more like a call to arms, Riot sounds completely unhinged with strange mumbling lyrics, long, sparse jams, and a dense, thick mix that adds to the overall tense atmosphere.

Things kick off nicely with a funky intro and some glorious Sly styled harmonies; you might think you’re about to get Stand! Part II. But things quickly settle into a heavy, slow boil and when you finally decipher the lyrics and hear “feel so good inside myself, don’t wanna move” you know you are far removed from any optimism the band had back in ’69.

Of course, during the course of it all it’s funky and the band kicks things along like only they can. The outro is especially powerful with Sly delivering some very heartfelt singing over top of the ever increasing vocal chorus. “Just Like A Baby” follows and the jam here is exactly why Riot is best heard on a hot, hazy, summer day: it sounds like butter melting on tar on top of a plastic chair under the sun moving slowly, deliberately, but with no real sense of ever stopping. Things just get thicker from here.

“Poet” follows with an equally lazy jam that could stand to be a little longer but at the tempo they’re playing it sounds longer than it really is. Sly is excellently funky on clavinet and the drums maintain a steady clock like beat to hold it all together. “Family Affair” features vocals sung through cupped hands and lyrics delivered with such a laid back vibe it sounds as if Sly’s about to just walk out of the studio while singing (I can see Sly now, eyes glazed over with confident, chemically refreshed anticipation, instructing his surely confused singers to sing through cupped hands…). Still, the song itself is brilliant with an excellent groove and wonderful wah-wah guitar.

The centerpiece of side 1 (this was a record after all) is “Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle'” which clocks in at a hypnotizing 8:45. The jam is especially sparse here, threatening to fall apart at any moment, yet somehow keeps moving along thanks to the very funky interplay between the bass, drums, guitar, and organ. The lyrics here are wonderfully ponderous and delivered with some excellent group vocals complete with an almost singalong chorus of “Timber! All fall down!” After the jam fades out we are treated to a small piece of Sly’s ever diminishing grip on reality with the title track, “There’s A Riot Goin’ On,” clocking in at 0:00. Yeah, you read that right.

As the album moves on we are treated to more fantastic and funky weirdness in songs such as “Brave & Strong” (which actually has a message hidden in there somewhere amongst all that thick funk) and some passionately sung vocals on “(You Caught Me) Smilin’.” “Time” treads along slowly like the summer heat rising from the pavement with a brief but satisfying climax around 1:55; again, the song is short but that molasses-like tempo makes it sound longer than it is.

“Spaced Cowboy” ushers in what has to be the first funk yodel (yeah, I said funk yodel) and features an excellent musical intro. Special mention needs to be made of how satisfying it is to hear either the guitar track being switched on, or the actual guitarist clicking on the wah pedal, at the 3:20 mark. For some reason this small bit of sound has always defined the album for me: a patchwork of greatness that defines the exact moment in time it was recorded. “Runnin’ Away” follows and it may just be the most upbeat song on the album with the guitar delivering some great funk scratching and a beautiful horn solo to ride out the jam.

And then of course we reach the end: a liquid, lazy, played-through-honey version of “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa” (you may know it in it’s much more upbeat single version titled “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin”). “Really, there was no other way to end an album like this than to take a poppy, upbeat song like “Thank You,” put the brakes on it, add some sparse instrumentation, drag it out for 7 minutes, and create something truly hypnotic and mesmerizing. It sums up the entire album, both lyrically and musically, all at once and is the perfect capstone to finish it off; without a final hurrah like this, Riot would cease to exist. If you had been scratching your head the entire time to figure this masterpiece of an album out, “Thank You” comes along and explains it simply: Thank you for letting Sly be himself.

Note: While the original album had a thick, almost buried sound due to Sly’s penchant for countless overdubbing, erasing, and overdubbing yet again on the same tape, the new remaster has a truly rewarding and articulate sound.

Somehow they managed to clear things up without losing the original thickness of sound that we have all come to know and love over the years. If you have an old version of this album you owe it to yourself to listen again on the new remaster. It is truly amazing.

Tracklist

  1. “Luv n’ Haight” – 4:01
  2. “Just Like a Baby” – 5:12
  3. “Poet” – 3:01
  4. “Family Affair” – 3:06
  5. “Africa Talks to You ‘The Asphalt Jungle'” – 8:45
  6. “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” – 0:00
  7. “Brave & Strong” – 3:28
  8. “(You Caught Me) Smilin'” – 2:53
  9. “Time” – 3:03
  10. “Spaced Cowboy” – 3:57
  11. “Runnin’ Away” – 2:51
  12. “Thank You For Talkin’ to Me Africa” – 7:14
  13. “Runnin’ Away” (mono single version – reissue bonus track) – 2:44
  14. “My Gorilla Is My Butler” (instrumental – reissue bonus track) – 3:11
  15. “Do You Know What?” (instrumental – reissue bonus track) 7:16
  16. “That’s Pretty Clean” (instrumental – reissue bonus track) – 4:12?
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  • krs2

    i listened to this album almost on loop one summer. truly the embodiment of all things summer, and everything you described it to be. Smilin’, Running Away. there’s nothing else like it.