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Music Review: Sly & The Family Stone – Fresh, Small Talk

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Despite the familiar presence of a leaping, smiling Sly Stone on the cover of Sly & The Family Stone's sixth album, Fresh, there was no doubt that this was not the same group that recorded such exuberant hits as "Everyday People" and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)."  If there had been any doubt that the darker outlook of 1971's There's A Riot Goin' On, released two years earlier, was a one-off, Fresh removed it. 

That Sly was the only band member to appear on the cover should have been a tip-off to the changes within.  Drummer Greg Errico and bassist Larry Graham had departed and been replaced, respectively, by Andy Newmark and Rusty Allen.  The move allowed Stone to continue the elastic funk explored on Riot

Gone is the democratic, utopian vision found in the band's earlier work, and with it virtually all of their trademarks, the alternating lead vocals, the staccato horn charts, the joyous poppy choruses.  In their place was a sparse, deep groove with Sly as the clear focal point.   And yet, Fresh is an extraordinary album, and holds up very well against their earlier groundbreaking work.  Allen's liquid bass is front and center here, and propels many of the songs, including the hit single, "If You Want Me To Stay," to the point where one forgets Graham's virtuosity on the instrument.  Sister Rosie Stone also pulls a star turn on a soulful cover of Doris Day's "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)." 

If the solo shot of Sly on the cover of Fresh was a shock to their longtime fans, then the cover of 1974's Small Talk was an outrage.  Here, Sly poses with his new wife and son in a portrait of domestic bliss.  Although the marriage only last five months, it still affected him enough to include the sound of a crying Sly, Jr. on the title track.  

His newfound romanticism also leads to the addition of strings into the mix, but while the production and performances are fine, the results on Small Talk are not particularly interesting.  Many of the songs have a tendency to meander aimlessly over the grooves, a clear result of Sly's drug addictions strengthened their grasp on him.

By this point, Sly & The Family Stone were fast becoming irrelevant after a half-decade of greatness.  The influence of their seminal records could be now found everywhere.  George Clinton and Isaac Hayes were taking Sly's psychedelic-soul fusion to new extremes, while the mixture of black consciousness and pop sheen could be heard in the hits of Earth, Wind & Fire.  

Small Talk essentially marked the virtual of Sly & The Family Stone.  Sly would release two more underwhelming albums on Epic, neither of which are included in this batch of reissues by Legacy. 

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About Dave Lifton