Sly & The Family Stone - 1967 – A Whole New Thing
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In truth, this is Sly’s best album, an unrecognized wonder, a great lost album. After this bold new work, his music became simpler, here it begins at its most clever and ambitious. What sets it apart from his subsequent output is how eclectic and highly arranged his songs are. It’s 1967. Sly is opening up his kind of R&B– just as the British Invasion opened up the rock/pop song in general. He had already worked with the Beau Brummells, the first American band to respond to the British Invasion. He was a music major in college, so his beginning the disc with a minor key “Frere Jacques” was a conscious borrowing from Mahler…!
The album is consistently strong. Listen to how tight and varied and “Advice” and “Dog” are– as Sly keeps the beat, but puts the tune through one change after another. Has anyone else written songs like these? Not that I’ve heard. Wonderful use of the different voices, distinct and blended. Two excellent touching slow ballads: “Let me Hear it from you” (sung by Larry Graham), and “That kind of person” (by Sly’s brother, Freddie). Dig the insanely frantic “Turn Me Loose” which they used to attach to their equally frantic version of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose“. Great drumming! Great sound. Beautifully produced, by Sly.
But so many of these potent songs fall apart at the end… Sly didn’t have the sense of an ending. And then– is there a connection?– he fell apart in the end, and became a druggy shadow of the talented wizard that he once was.
A1 Underdog 3:59
A2 If This Room Could Talk 3:00
A3 Run, Run, Run 3:14
A4 Turn Me Loose 1:52
A5 Let Me Hear It From You 3:35
A6 Advice 2:22
B1 I Cannot Make It 3:20
B2 Trip to Your Heart 3:43
B3 Hate to Love Her 3:30
B4 Bad Risk 3:04
B5 That Kind of Person 4:25
B6 Dog 3:10
When you title an LP A Whole New Thing, you really have to be able to back it up, and Sly & The Family Stone do. The band’s influence hardly needs explicating, from Norman Whitfield’s work with The Temptations, as far forward as Gnarls Barkley.
Yet with so much emphasis on the trailblazing aspect of Sly & The Family Stone, it’s easy to forget just how much A Whole New Thing owes to tradition as well. The record company helped lend this LP an aura of being outside the mainstream in responding to its commercial underperformance by “requesting” a more saleable sound, which resulted in Dance to the Music. Yet I would suggest that there’s nothing particularly uncommercial about A Whole New Thing, any more than Dance to the Music “sells out”.
The most obviously weird, psychedelic moment here is “Trip to Your Heart” (see what they did there?), which in most musical climates would freak mainstream record buyers out. But that’s about it. The rest of the tracks are easily in line with a soul and blues tradition and have the kind of instant appeal that continues to grow over time. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the more traditionalistic aspects here is how jazzy the horns are in places. In some respects, A Whole New Thing is something of a culmination of a tradition, which simultaneously opens up new vistas.
That’s not to understate the groundbreaking aspects on show here, but very often the sense of difference A Whole New Thing brings to the party stems from Sly Stone’s congenital inability to write, perform and produce material without stamping it with an underlying sense of otherness. It’s the kind of otherness born of a nature wholly incapable of sticking to set formulae or self-contained categories, whose fertile creativity is allowed to wander wither it will, yet gratifyingly with a sense of focus. As a consequence, A Whole New Thing is both coherent and disparate, providing variety while remaining vibrant and forceful throughout.