In conversation Miles Davis says the name real slow — “Sslaaa” — with the same intonation of awe and macho respect that a young kid on a street corner in North Philadelphia would use to describe Mister Bad Ass. Miles, for 25 years the leader of voodoo musical changes, makes no secret of his admiration for Sly Stone, who is half his age and half a world away in audience if not in temperament. In fact two years ago Miles grabbed Stevie Wonder’s bass player and changed his entire instrumentation in order to plug into the new black modes that Sly was playing with. Listen to both Sly and Miles now and draw your own conclusions.
Fresh is Sly’s new direction for 1973, a potpourri of styles, new musical attitudes and futuristic black trances. In a sense it completes the cycle that every successful pop musician undergoes, from a strict Top 40 mentality to a more complex and creative (yet still commercially viable) maturity. The Family Stone’s early records were classy and exuberant exhortations to Spirit; we were urgently advised to dance to the music, to stand. You can do it if you try.
After only a year and a huge success at Woodstock Sly emerged as a black life hero: When he came to town to play his music people would by and large go crazy, the Family’s chaotic large hall performances being consistently marred/enhanced by the subtle and very real glamour of rock & roll violence. As his life has become more complicated, so has Sly’s music. The possession busts, the street harrassments, personal and public turmoil vanquished the seemingly eternal, sanguine optimism of the early records and produced something new — the rhythmic little spells and black magics of last year’s There’s a Riot Going On. That amazing album opened Sly’s private door a crack for us, and we looked in to hear of guilt and innocence and hard stuff, a world of very mixed feelings so personal as really to be “A Family Affair,” a karma record. It is also the stonedest record I’ve ever heard, and one of the most repeatedly listenable.
And so here’s Fresh, in both senses of the word. Again Sly opens himself up lyrically, but only insofar as the words present a commercial excuse for the music. The record is both new and cheeky: It aims for honesty and decadence at the same time. It focuses on certain of his hassles while thoroughly entrancing his listener with the conjuring charms of the rhythms of black life. It’s a bitch.
The new Family Stone in all its bizarre glory: “In Time” opens with concurring rhythms, Freddie Stone on guitar and the tasty little horn and reed vamps that have always struck another edge on Sly’s music. “In Time” is a jerky, robot music fanfare to the album in 3/5, with a stream-of-consciousness lyric dropping bombs like “I switched from coke to pep and now I’m a connoisseur.”
“If You Want Me to Stay” is a beautiful horn and organ tune with a vocal by Sly that’s alternately purringly seductive and furious. In its kind of hedgy anxiety it emerges as one of his better love songs. After all, what’s more difficult than that first night? It serves as a kind of thematic intro into the touchstone of the album, “Let Me Have It All,” an orgasmic, hypnotic, erotic foray into complete pop sensuality, “closer closer to the top/Looking down is quite a drop.” And then Sly and the girls wail, “Let me have it all,” with as much lust and fervor as when he used to exhort us to get higher. This song is completely beyond higher, and is certainly the most appealing and incantatory of these spells.
“Frisky” sounds like an outtake from Riot, yanked perhaps because it was just too heavy in that album’s heavily doped-up context. Like much of Riot and the best of Sly, it is feeling music that is somewhat beyond the idea of dancing. The music and vocal make a graphic depiction of a certain mysterioso state of mind that not everybody can relate to. And here you got to respond to the lyrics that Sly croaks — I suggest that the song is the most graphic musical depiction of hard drug feelings since the days of Charlie Parker. The ear of the beholder, if you will.
The side ends with the bynow obligatory filler/bow to the famous old standby “Thank You for Letting Me Be Myself” riff, this time called “Thankful/Thoughtful.”
“Skin I’m In” starts out side two on a simple horn and rhythm riff that makes for good dancing. Likewise “I Don’t Know” with churning R&B vocal chops by Sly and sultry backup vocals by Little Sister. The lyrics have mainly to do with a general denial of possession with intent to sell. The tune is insistent and powerful, and is a perfect companion to the next cut, “Keep On Dancing,” which is “Dance to the Music” slowed down, syncopated and sat on.
“Que Sera Sera,” the 1955 Doris Day hit parader, gets the proverbial shot in the arm in Sly’s version. Rose Stone does the line of the song in pristine Doris Day style, then Sly comes in and wrings from the chorus every drop of its blood-from-a-stone funk. In the chorus the tune becomes a beautiful working blues. Rosie even botches Doris’ lines a couple of times, but the take is obviously so tough that whoever’s at the knobs signals her to keep singing. It comes off as an inspired piece of studio foolery that truly earns its place on the album.
“Baby’s Makin’ Babies,” the final cut, has a gospel coloring in the great female backup section, more of those gutsy horn vamps and a cracked and sprung rhythm that Sly is so admired for. Again it’s primarily a spell or a chant, but in a sense it stands for the entire LP in that it seems free of the belladonna blues that many listeners felt marred parts of There’s a Riot Going On.
Fresh is a growing step for Sly — out of the murky and dangerous milieu that infused Riot and into a greater perspective on his own capacity to make music a positive form of communication. In its own sense, and on its own terms, it is his masterpiece.