Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Review of Sly & The Family Stone’s Fresh Album

Sly & The Family Stone released their sixth studio album Fresh on June 30, 1973. It was the band's much-anticipated follow-up to their groundbreaking and highly influential album There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971). The band stunned the music world with Riot and introduced a whole new type of minimal funk/soul sound. This new sound featured electronic drum-machine beats (very cutting-edge at the time), stripped-down arrangements and more complex rhythms. And the album had a more cynical, darker outlook than the band’s previous recordings. Riot has been widely praised for its innovation and superb songwriting and arrangements. And it frequently turns up on greatest-albums-of-all-time lists by noted music publications.

Fresh continued with the band’s new sonic direction and features sparse arrangements, drum-machine beats and intricate rhythms. However, Fresh is a bit lighter in tone than Riot and has a more optimistic outlook. And like Riot, this collection is highly introspective, with Sly Stone drawing heavily from his own personal experiences and life lessons for song inspiration.

It should be noted that Larry Graham was no longer a member of Sly & The Family Stone when Fresh was released. He left the band in 1972 to form Graham Central Station. Bassist Rustee Allen joined Sly & the Family Stone as Graham’s replacement that year. In fact, it was Graham who recommended the 21-year-old Monroe, Louisiana native as his replacement. Allen’s playing throughout Fresh is fluid and very funky. His style is less dynamic than Graham’s, but he more than gets the job done. Graham did play on two Fresh tracks right before his exit from the band: “If It Were Left Up To Me” and “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will be).” 

In addition to Allen, the other two new band members on Fresh were saxophonist Pat Rizzo and drummer Andy Newmark. Newmark was brought in as a replacement for Gerry Gibson, who joined Sly & the Family Stone after founding member Greg Errico quit the band in 1971.

Fresh kicks off with the electrifying “In Time.” The syncopation on this groove is off the charts. Allen serves up a furiously funky bass line that’s complemented by Newmark’s supertight drumming. The groove is accentuated by nasty guitar licks, dope horn lines and soulful organ. Sly reflects on how bad decisions, harmful habits and a defeatist mindset will ultimately bring a person down and leave them with feelings of deep regret later in life. The song advocates self-motivation and to actively work toward improving yourself and making the most of your time while you’re here. Sly doesn’t let himself off the hook either and touches on his ongoing battle with cocaine abuse: “I switched from coke to pep and I'm a connoisseur/Mmm-hmm ’bout time.” 

Sly contemplates all of the blessings in his life on “Thankful N’ Thoughtful.” This is one of his most personal songs. The slow, bluesy groove features funky wah-wah guitar licks and a marvelous horn arrangement. And the haunting Maestro Rhythm King beat enhances the track’s somber tone. Sly’s introspective lyrics almost feel like a prayer or deep confessional. They touch on some of the things that he’s gone through in his life and how he fell headlong down a destructive path after becoming a huge star. He had lost himself in the poisonous vortex of rock superstardom and was pulled deep into its many temptations and vices. He feels incredibly blessed that he’s still alive and was able to  break free from that path. And he’s thankful that God (“the Main-man”) has given him another opportunity to grow, learn from his mistakes, and move forward in a more positive direction. You can feel Sly’s church background on this deeply spiritual track. 

“Frisky” is an irresistible funk groove that features some great bass work, a cool horn arrangement and percolating keyboards. This is another inward-looking song in which Sly gives the listener a peek inside his world and some of the things he does to keep himself centered and prevents him from going down a destructive path again: “That's why I keep music/All around the bed/So I can call Frisky/Very hard to be led in the wrong direction.” 

“If You Want Me To Stay” is one of the finest examples of the band’s new stripped-down sound, and it also showcases Sly's gift at creating really unique grooves that are also pop-radio friendly. There’s a graceful simplicity about it that made it stand out among other popular tracks of the day. It boasts a brilliant bass line–played by Allen with some added touches from Sly. Melodic, infectious and funky, it’s one of the best bass lines in the band’s discography, which is quite a feat in itself. And it nicely frames Sly’s strong vocal performance. The song also features a fantastic horn arrangement and some sweet keyboard work.

Sly infuses his vocals with a sense of weary resignation. He sounds like a man who’s reached a point in his life where he’s tired of all the drama and headaches and just wants some peace of mind. The song’s specifically directed at his lady, letting her know that he needs to be himself or he’ll have to exit the relationship. Apparently the song has its origins as an apology letter to his future wife Kathleen Silva following a big argument. However, taken in a broader context, he’s addressing his audience and the music business in general–letting them know that behind the flashy costumes and his bigger-than-life image is a real person, with flaws and all. He’s no longer going to put up a front and pretend to be someone he’s not; and if they can’t accept that, then Deuces. Sly gave out this musical ultimatum in order to maintain his sanity and soul in a business where one can easily lose both, especially at his level of fame.

“Let Me Have It All” is a gritty funk cut that features some wicked  bass-poppin’ and sizzling horn charts. And Little Sister lights up the track with their forceful background vocals. Sly expresses his deep love for his lady with whom he shares an almost spiritual connection: “You turned into a prayer/I can feel you almost there.” But the two have been having some communication problems lately, and he hopes they can get past that and back to the way they were before. He doesn’t just want a portion of her love; he wants it all. You can feel his great passion in the strong chorus.

Sly and his crew serve up an incredible rendition of Doris Day’s “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).” The band completely overhauls the Oscar-winning song and transforms it from the delightful classic we all know into a baptismal sonic experience. Rose Stone delivers a beautiful lead vocal performance, and the powerful gospel-infused chorus will stir even the most hardened hearts. And Larry Graham further elevates the track with his sterling bass work. This soulful, emotionally-charged version of the song really brings home the meaning of its lyrics. 

And here’s a bit of interesting related trivia: Sly once performed an impromptu duet of the song with Doris Day. Sly was friends with her music producer son Terry Melcher. One day when Sly was visiting Melcher’s Beverly Hills home, he saw Day coming down the stairs and began performing “Que Sera, Sera” on the piano. She joined in, and the two sang a few verses together. This was perhaps the inspiration behind the band covering the song for Fresh. There were also rumors that Sly and Day dated, but those rumors turned out to be false. 

“Babies Making Babies” touches on how a lot of young people are irresponsibly procreating when they’re not emotionally or financially prepared. Teen pregnancy and unwed motherhood were serious concerns back then and still are today, which makes this song as relevant and timely as ever. Sly succinctly summed up the problem with the song’s title, illustrating what a clever lyricist he is. The song also touches on the cycle of life: “From the womb to the tomb.” The groove features an irresistible horn arrangement and some groovin’ bass provided by Sly.

“If It Were Left Up To Me” is a callback to the band’s pre-Riot sound of the late ‘60s.  It makes you feel a bit nostalgic for the band’s more hopeful, idealistic era. It also evokes the sense of camaraderie the band shared before all the craziness and internal friction took hold. 

On the bittersweet “Skin I’m In,” Sly reflects on his life and ponders if he would have done anything differently if he had to do it all over again. The track boasts a sensational horn arrangement and an extra-funkfied bridge. And Sly serves up some killer bass.

“Keep On Dancin’” is a dirty gutbucket groove. It boasts some loafin’ bass and wicked guitar licks. Sly and Little Sister deliver bucketloads of soul on vocals. The song is a nod to the band’s 1967 hit “Dance To The Music.”

Sly delivers a passionate vocal performance on “I Don’t Know (Satisfaction).” He speaks on the need to change and improve the flawed system that we live in. In one verse, he speaks directly to black people’s struggle in America: “I see abuse, what’s the use/Time must let my people loose/We tryin’ - I don’t know.”  This moody funk groove features bumpin’ bass, dirty guitar licks and tight horns.

Sly produced Fresh, which was released on Epic Records. He wrote all of the songs except for “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).” Here’s the full list of all the players on the album: Freddie Stone (vocals, guitar), Cynthia Robinson (trumpet), Rose Stone (vocals, piano, keyboards), Rustee Allen (bass), Jerry Martini (saxophone), Andy Newmark (drums), Pat Rizzo (saxophone), Little Sister (Vet Stone, Mary McCreary, Elva Mouton)  - vocals, Larry Graham (bass on “Que Sera, Sera” and “If It Were Left Up To Me”) and Sly Stone (vocals, piano, harmonica, organ, bass, guitar and more).

Fresh peaked at #7 on the Billboard 200, and it topped Billboard’s R&B album chart. It was the band’s last of three consecutive #1 albums on Billboard’s R&B album chart and their final album to make the top 10 on the Billboard 200 album chart. And it climbed to #17 on Canada’s album chart. Fresh went gold with more than 500,000 units sold. 

The album’s biggest hit was “If You Want Me To Stay,” which peaked at #3 on Billboard’s R&B singles chart and #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart. It was certified gold. The song was the band's final top-20 hit on the pop singles chart. “In Time” had a strong showing on the R&B charts, peaking at #10, and it rose to#32 on the pop singles charts.

Fresh received a lot of praise from music critics and fans upon its release. Stephen Davis from Rolling Stone magazine called the album a “masterpiece” and said it was “a growing step for Sly.” Additionally, Fresh has been lauded by notable artists such as George Clinton, Brian Eno and Miles Davis. Clinton listed it as one of his favorite albums. Eno claimed the album signaled a shift in the history in recording “Where the rhythm instruments, particularly the bass drum and bass, suddenly become the important instruments in the mix.” Davis was so blown away by “In Time” that he made his band listen to it on repeat for 30 minutes straight. 

The album had a significant impact on funk and R&B music. Its wide-ranging influence can still be heard today in different genres, including R&B, hip-hop, pop, alternative and neo-soul.

Fresh is among Sly & The Family Stone’s best works, sitting right alongside Stand! and There’s a Riot Goin’ On. However, it doesn’t get near the love it should. Its 50th anniversary is coming up next month, and hopefully this will compel people to revisit it and listen to it with fresh ears and finally give it the love and appreciation it sorely deserves.

"In Time"

"If You Want Me To Stay"

"Thankful N' Thoughtful

No comments: