Wednesday, October 10, 2007

No. 186: Fresh

Band: Sly & The Family Stone
Album: Fresh
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The last of Stone's great records, "Fresh" has Sly further developing his funk sound. Moving away from the rock and roll he played before, the bass and Sly's low voice take center stage on "Fresh," including the fantastic "If You Want Me To Stay."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's not on par with "There's A Riot Goin' On" or "Stand!," but "Fresh" is pretty great. This is a fine place for it on the list.
Best song: "If You Want Me to Stay" is the highlight, though "Thankful 'N Thoughtful" is amazing.
Worst song: There isn't really a bad song on the record, though "Let Me Have It All" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: I love Sly Stone, so I love this record.

My unfamiliarity with funk is reflected not necessarily in my distaste for the genre. Rather, with a band like Sly & The Family Stone, anything they've done is good to me, mostly because I can't really tell good from bad. Certainly, there are funk record that were hits -- the ones you and I know from years of radio play and such -- but the non-single album tracks and the non-popular albums may not be great. I love them because they're different from what I know and have a distinct sound.

So goes "Fresh" in my head. I've listened to "Fresh" for the first time the past few weeks and I certainly enjoy it. There's a real groove to the records and Stone's voice, smoother than ever, fits the music perfectly.

But, I don't want to fall into a trap in which I don't keep the same standards for funk that I do for punk rock. "Let Me Have It All" and "Thankful 'N Thoughtful" are mostly just chant-type lyrics over a fantastic groove (of course, the difference between those songs and the Stooges' "We Will Fall" is that the Stooges record has a crappy backbeat). Lyrics like that aren't my bag; Though the voice as an instrument is something to behold in Sly & The Family Stone's case.

Nevertheless, I like "Fresh." Save for the strange cover of "Qué Será, Será (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)," the record is less of a negative, post-hippie reflection as it was a portending view of the '70s drug and hedonism culture. "Keep On Dancin'" borrows and repositions "Dance To The Music" while "If You Want Me to Stay" is a great breakup/makeup song, sung with a real forlorn feeling in Stone's voice. "Babies Makin' Babies" and "I Don't Know (Satisfaction)" are really the only "spirit of the '60s" songs on the record; Optimistic protest music just isn't here.

The common criticism of "Fresh" is that the band fell apart during "There's A Riot Goin' On," prompting seminal bass player Larry Graham, original drummer Gregg Errico and sax player Jerry Martini to leave. It may be my untrained ear (documented above), but I don't see a huge drop off. Yes, the band isn't as good as its earlier albums, but it's also a different time. A lot of bands only have three great records in them. "Fresh" is a quality record and holds up very well. Sure, it's not as good as "Stand!" or "There's A Riot Goin' On," but no records stand up to those two.

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