Sly and the Family Stone: Life

By: Chris Pacifico

In 1968, racial harmony and gender equality were eluding most Americans but Sly and the Family Stone were creating a nearly utopian society in their band, whose members were black and white, male and female. Their leader, Sly Stone, was the Michael Franti of his day – an optimistic, socially conscious songwriter with the ability to spread joy thorough the wide merger of musical styles.

Life (Epic) is perhaps Sly's most overlooked masterpiece. This deluxe reissue, part of a full revamp of the Family Stone catalogue, is where the group set their feet on the ground, creatively speaking, before breaking out the following year with Stand!

"Plastic Jim" is pure psychedelic soul with Sly chiding charlatan hippies and their pietism over an "Eleanor Rigby" rehash. "All the plastic people/Where do they all come from," sings Sly over Rosie Stone's foxtrotting organ. "Into My Own Thing" contains a riff borrowed three decades later by Fatboy Slim on "Weapon of Choice." Kudos to the original song's proto-reggae groove, a lick infectious enough to make Christopher Walken dance around a room.

"Harmony" is a snappy slice of gospel pop with a carousel shimmy, and the title track a joyous celebration of rock and funk. Bassist Larry Graham practically owns "Jane Is A Groupee" with his warbling lines and catchy call-and-response lyrics that touch on sexual politics. This expanded edition features unreleased numbers such as the colorful, slithering "Seven More Days" and the quasi honky tonk "Sorrow".

With Life, Sly and crew took their maiden steps towards stardom, which hit them a mere year later after their dynamic performance at Woodstock. They managed to embrace social change and unity through a jubilant musical palette. If you fancy a yang to this album's yin, check out 1971's There's A Riot Goin' On, where only three years later Sly's optimistic vision had fallen into bitterness and despair. Riot is a death march for the '60s that emerges from the hazy cloud of Sly's ever deepening drug abuse.

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[Published on: 5/4/07]

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