Sly Stone turned 70 earlier this year, and Epic/Legacy is celebrating his milestone with the first proper Sly and the Family Stone box set. Higher! is four discs of Sly’s freaky, funky fusion of soul, pop, psychedelia, jazz, and Rock & Roll, a space-age sound that crossed racial and gender barriers in both the band’s ranks and the charts. The Family released only six albums during their peak years, but those records covered a lot of sonic ground—the undisciplined euphoria of A Whole New Thing, which suggested a band trying to cram every idea they could onto their first record in case they never got a chance to make a second one; the triumphant “we’re here to stay” party of Dance to the Music; the fully mature and unbelievably confident Life; the stunning transformation from pop hit machine to insane jam troupe of Stand!; the drugged up, tuned in, and fuzzed out masterpiece-despite-itself that is There’s a Riot Going On; and the slicker, more conventional Fresh. Those records are all represented by choice cuts on Higher!, though the versions are often unfamiliar: a big helping of mono single mixes; a snack of wild live performances from the Isle of Wight 1970 concert (“Fun” is the only major classic not here in any form).
That stuff is cool and relatively rare, but the meat and potatoes of Higher! are its real weirdos. The carnival starts with “I Just Learned How to Swim,” a primitive yet energetic dance number Sly cut as a solo artist in 1964. It is bested by its B-side, “Scat Swim,” which is like a prototype of the fusion the Family Stone would stew up three years later. The B-side develops on the A-side’s Rock & Roll boogie only to suddenly veer into a Big Band swing. There wasn’t anything like this on the radio in 1964. There’s also “Silent Communications,” a totally out-of-character jazzy torch song; “I Get High on You,” a crazy funk goof presented in an expanded, experimental version from 1967 and a tighter, radio-ready one from 1968 (they’re both fabulous for their own reasons); “I Know What You Came to Say,” a dusky slow-burn with muted trumpet that reached an anthemic climax; “What’s That Got to Do with Me,” a swirling soul waltz; “My Woman’s Head,” an instrumental with superb guitar work from Freddie Stone; “Wonderful World of Color,” an instrumental with moody horn charts darkening an ass-shaking backbeat; and a pair of bizarre oddities by “The French Fries”: “Danse a La Musique” (aka: “Dance to the Music” in French sung in chipmunk voices) and the even weirder “Small Fries.” The review package I received didn’t include the 104-page booklet you’ll get if you actually buy this set, so I’m not sure what the deal is with The French Fries, and I received the package as MP3s instead of lossless files, so I’ll refrain from assessing the sound quality of this box set (I will confirm what you already know, though: MP3s are shitty).
What I won’t refrain from saying is that Higher! does it right. A great box set should give a satisfying perspective of the artist’s career without dwelling on the dreg years unnecessarily. It should offer enough familiar material to orient the listener and enough rarities to make the trip unpredictable and enlightening. Higher! is a great box set.
Get Sly and the Family Stone’s Higher! at Amazon.com here: