Saturday, February 7, 2015

Sly and the Family Stone - A Whole New Thing - 1967

The cover before a giant sticker ruined it.

This reissue of the first SATFS album was rescued from a second hand bookstore in Rockville for fifty cents.  The sleeve is in lousy shape.  The bottom is totally ripped so the entire inner just falls right out (sad face).  The front has a cruddy sticker from a promotional company to direct radio stations to "suggested cuts."  This huge and unfortunate sticker covers half the album art which is (was) a nice bit of colorful collage and graphics.  What is miraculous is that the vinyl within is in pristine shape.

"Underdog" is the lead-off track and it will knock your socks off!  Starting off to the tune of French nursery song "Frere Jacques" makes the listener wonder what they've gotten themselves into until morphing into a blistering combination of funky horns and sing-a-long ready hooks.  All of that musical intensity fits nicely under the staccato punch of Sly Stone's rich vocals.  A focus on Sly for a moment.  He's a force of nature.  Throughout this hodge-podge collection he shouts, rocks, croons, scats, doo-wops, falsettos, preaches, and generally slays.  The rest of "the family" generally keeps up and manage to show their share of chops.  Although not a direct line forward, this LP is a prime example of the transition that music was making from the soul pop of the 50's, to the hippie psychedelia of the 60's, and what would become the funk of the 70's.  This abundance of pop, rock, and soul is sometimes more effective than others.  "Turn Me Loose" is a prime example of soulful, super blues that has so much boogie it's busting at the seams.  It's a mess, but not without its charms (the aforementioned Sly going through his entire vocal range to the point that his final verse ends with a "whoosh, I'm exhausted" sigh).  It sounds like a circus just marched through the speakers.  Follow that up with a soulful ballad a la Marvin Gaye?  Yes, Sly does that.

Side B has some interesting musical directionlessness happening.  This is early career time for these guys and they probably are living the rock and roll lifestyle.  That wildness shows in the eclectic styles on display and it's likely they were still hungry to "make it" which also probably helped feed their creativity.  Not that the music isn't compelling, but it's clear the band was very much exploring, jamming, getting to know one another, and A Whole New Thing has that all-ways-at-once vibe.  Lead vocals at times are handled by other Family Stone members which isn't the worst thing ever, but really what were they thinking?  Thankfully Sly blesses our ears with a masterful break-up ballad, "That Kind of Person" which is not quite James Brown, but not far off.  Final track "Dog" (flipside to "Underdog"?) is a punchy pop song that doesn't quite get going.  A Whole New Thing is exactly what the title implies, but you'll either want to move on to SATFS's more well known albums or at least imagine how seeing them live in their heyday must have been.

The opening drone in "Trip to Your Heart" very overtly is recognized to be the same "aahhhh ahhhhh ahhhhh ahhhhh" riff that LL Cool J samples for his 1990 comeback (not a comeback) single "Momma Said Knock You Out."  Sly and the Family Stone knocks you out!

Remember that tattered record sleeve?  It has a fairly thoughtful write-up on the back about the historical context of this debut album.  The language in it is a bit dated though.  For one, the author calls Mama Cass "portly" for no apparent reason.  As if just calling her Mama Cass, the singer of the insanely famous "Mamas and the Papas" wasn't enough.  It's interesting to read about Sly's early years as a record producer, radio disc jockey (that's a DJ in case you didn't know), and to learn the name of his first band, "The Stoners."  Unfortunately the rest of the write-up really dodges saying much about the actual LP.  Fleh.

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