Sly and the Family Stone, Small Talk, Epic PE 32930.
Rock and soul music's favorite mask-master is back and grinning madly on the cover of his new album, Small Talk. Sly's got one hand holding a baby boy and the other around a lissom lady one assumes is Mother Beautiful. Daddy's teeth are gleaming and his eyes beam heavenward as if in search of a hand to shake in thanks. It's a scene worthy of the cover of the old Saturday Evening Post and would surely have received Norman Rockwell's blessing. He'd call it "...and Baby makes three". And on the disc itself, one finds that many of the songs are about love and such. Not that there's anything wrong with all that. It's just that it's always been a puzzle to figure out in which mask of Sylvester Stewart's to believe.
There was Sly, the Electric Androgyne of Woodstock, who wanted to take us higher. And then there was the Sly of There's a Riot Goin' On, an album which confounded critics and delighted and inspired musicians from Stevie Wonder to Miles Davis. Was he skagged-out or just down and funky? The Sly of last summer's Fresh was apparently just re-risen-happy, humorous, and uptempo. And now, with the delivery of Small Talk, we're asked to ponder the joys of connubial bliss.
To tell the truth though, this is one disarming album. Take the title cut which opens side one. There's a baby crying and the parents cooing, all this gently bubbling over a loose groove typical of Sly's understated brilliance. "Small Talk", and "Mother Beautiful" like it, is simply suffused with love. "Say You Will" is high and positive and free. It's about the giving a damn, continuing the struggle, and not getting mired down in the shit. Sly l says it's "Time For Livin'" - "time for givin', No time for makin' up a monster to sell". This theme, echoed in "Can't Strain My Brain", "Better Thee Than Me" and "Livin' While I'm Livin.", is allied with the idea of gently seizing the moment by the ears and milking it of pleasures great and small. Sly advises in "Loose Booty" that
When you're trying to flee from
Any fakin' grin
Tell you what to do fun
Get in the frame of mind I'm in
Find yourself some room to
Let it all hang out
Get into some dancin'
Do what it's all about.
And this is sure enough dancing music. "Loose Booty", in fact, is the mama-jumpinest cut on the album, gumbo bubbling, trumpets expiring, and bassman Rusty Allen contributing the live wire thumping he patented long ago. The album closes with "This Is Love" which will take you directly back to the Flamingoe's "I Only Have Eyes For You". All that lush sentimentality and Sly's sincere crooning will bring tears of happiness to your eyes.
Although I've concentrated on the lyrics, I don't mean to neglect the music, per se. The Family Stone, so often neglected to the shadows behind Sly's back, is a great, great band. Special continuing pleasures include Freddie Stone's guitar, Rose Stone Banks' vocal and keyboard work, and Jerry Martini's saxophone stylings. The whole, however, is greater than the sum of its parts, and you'll find that Small Talk is mostly music that goes bump in the night.
So now it's "Daddy" Stone who is doing what continues to be the most consistently satisfying rolling in the idiom, grinding out the gospel - "free your ass and your mind will follow."