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.