Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Sly & the Family Stone - Fresh

Sly & the Family Stone

Released 1973 on Epic
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 10/03/2004ce

1 In Time
2 If You Want Me To Stay
3 Let Me Have It All
4 Frisky
5 Thankful n' Thoughtful
6 Skin I'm In
7 I Don't Know (Satisfaction)
8 Keep On Dancin'
9 Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be)
10 If It Were Left Up To Me
11 Babies Makin' Babies

I'm not sure why this album is so overlooked. It was the follow-up to the legendary "There's A Riot Goin' On" album and maybe it can't help but be seen as a step down after that quantum leap forward. While "Riot"'s wordless flag cover let you know it was going to be A Statement, the cover of "Fresh" features Sly grinnin' and karate kickin' in an explosion of joyful energy, like he's back to making soundtracks for dance parties. Talk about a fake out!

On the surface this a cleaner affair than the previous LP, Sly's singing doesn't sound nearly as out-of-it and the arrangments are leaner & more focused (the Family Stone got a new rhythm section and started using session musicians.) But if the funk on "Riot" was like the sardonic grin of a stoner on the nod, "Fresh" is the forced smile of a therapy patient trying to convince his doctor that he's feeling much better now, really. You can almost believe him til you listen closer to what he's saying.

"In Time" is something of a cousin to the "feel so good / don't wanna move" vibe of "Luv & Haight" from the previous album. Begins with a supercheezy analog drum machine beat, over which the drummer adds sharp funk accents. Sly's hazy soul organ sways, Freddie's guitar plucks mellow blues melodies then Sly begins to preach in his soulful slur: "There's a mickie in the tastin' of disaster! In Time . . . (Rose & Cynthia: IN TIME!) You get faster! mmmmm, Harry Hippie is a waste, as if he hasta, procrasta- (long pause) -natin'!" What's he talkin' about? Sounds jovial and foreboding all at once. Some party this is gonna be! (But you can't stop shakin' yo booty and you know it!) "I switched from coke to pep, and I'm a connoisseur!" Maybe that partly explains it . . .

"If You Want Me To Stay" was the album's top 20 hit single, beginning with a funky walkin' poppin' bassline. Sly sings bitter/confused yet romantic musings in a strange high froggy voice, his squishy organ squalls lurching about avante-funk stylee like Miles Davis' crazy work on the Yamaha organ in the mid-70's. Sly scats in a feminine falsetto, tinkles on electric piano and one of the most deliciously odd pop hits of all time fades out barely past the 2:30 mark.

"Let Me Have It All" seems of a piece with the previous tune thematically (in fact put the two titles together and they form a complete thought.) In spite of its title "Stay" was more of a plea to be understood than some sort of ultimatum to his Romantic Other. This song is the plea to be accepted. He sings "closer, closer to the top / looking down is quite a drop" -- perhaps a comment on his own career arc, which was over the hump and heading down by 1973. But what he really wants is Her: "you set up a barrier / don't you know I'd marry ya?" These romantic confusion odes must be for the woman he married and who bore his child, the happy family unit appearing together on the cover of his next LP "Small Talk" in 1974 -- which really was the beginning of the end for Sly's career, and needless to say the marriage didn't last either. Such is the bittersweet biographic context of these records.

"Frisky" sounds like the natural follow-up single to "Stay" (and it was), another relatively concise and poppy song, albeit with an even more bizarre vocal from Sly -- particularly the way he suddenly barks out the line "call me back on the telephone!" ahead of the beat and a couple octaves lower than the rest of the song. It sounds kooky and even comical, the kind of unstructured freaky off-meter approach Ol' Dirty Bastard has perfected more recently in hip-hop. Exactly why Sly is my favorite song stylist, ever!

The extended & downbeat funk workout "Thankful 'n' Thoughtful" is the centerpiece of the album, the most extreme example of the contradictory nature of these songs -- he's haunted, nay OBSESSED, by the spectre of his own death -- yet says he's thankful for being alive: "Sunday mornin' I forgot my prayer / I shoulda been happy, I still be there / Something could have come and taken me away / but the main man felt Sly should be here another day / I gotta be thoughtful, uh huh, thankful."

"Skin I'm In" is a brief horn-driven declaration: "if I could do it all over again, I'd be in the same skin I'm in." Even if we could go back and change things, we wouldn't.

"I Don't Know" sets a pokey shuffle and chanting girl singers against Sly's conflicted ruminations on society: "I see abuse, what's the use / time must let my people loose / we tryin', but I don't know / much to learn, a place to turn / when there's nothing left to burn." Like a lot of these tunes, there's a theme of TIME passing -- will it cure all wounds, or does it represent blown opportunities? The question of action vs. lethargy always comes to the fore, Sly wanting to do the first but sounding more like he's stuck in the latter. The song's subtitle "Satisfaction" sure seems ironic.

"Keep On Dancin'" quotes from and updates their 1967 hit "Dance To The Music" -- though as you might imagine the electrifying intensity of that earlier nugget has been replaced by a vibe of decadence in the face of doom and decay. The forced-grin lyrics command you to keep on dancin' as if that will ward off the outside world and the future, but the music undercuts the message with its "danse macabre."

"Que Sera Sera" is a moldy oldie popularized by Doris Day, and this is as classy and soulful a makeover as could be hoped for, Sister Rose the epitome of melancholic innocence on the verses ("when I was just a little girl, I asked my Mother, what will I be?" etc.) Again, that old bugaboo TIME is the dominant theme, in fact they vibe this one much more like the depressoid fatalism of Day's "Is That All There Is?"

"If It Were Left Up To Me" at under 2 minutes in length is the buried gem on the album, and the only tune to come anywhere near the exuberent optimism of 60's Sly cuts like "Everyday People" and "Stand!" The girls sing a close harmony lead while Sly interjects like a preacher and cheers them on: "If it were left up to me, it would take more than a notion / If it were left up to me, I would put ideas in motion / Had it been left up to you, would you try? WOULD YOU TRY? / If it were left up to me, I WOULD TRY." Maybe optimism in the face of a fatalistic knowledge that one human can't really make a difference is more like it. Brings tears to my eyes it does!

The album concludes on a strange note with another long downbeat funk: "from the womb to the tomb / Babies Makin' Babies." It's not a commentary on unwed motherhood or whatever, but a statement about the cycle of life, one that makes the whole process sound futile as Sly repeats the title endlessly . . . babies makin' babies makin' babies.

At it's heart this truly is a downer record, but what makes it such a powerful statement is the juxtaposition of all that fatalism, fatality, decadence, decay, etc. with "funky party music" brought to you by the Ever-Grinnin' Party King of the hippy era. All fun things must come to an end eventually, and Sly is fighting desperately to put off that inevitable day at least until tomorrow. Really, nothing has changed since "Riot" except more time has passed, so Sly watches the clock and says "I would try . . . but I don't know . . . the future's not ours to see . . . so keep on dancin' . . . "

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