September 1st, 2010
Artist: Sly Stone
Release date: April 20, 2010
This Listen to the Voices collection from Ace Records is the second effort by Alec Palao to present Sly Stone as a master of the recording studio environment. The first, released in 1994 and titled Precious Stone: In the Studio with Sly Stone, 1963-1965, naturally covers that time period and corresponds with Stone’s early, formative employment at Tempo Productions in San Francisco. Taken in tandem, the two CDs pull together a variety of recording projects that occupied Stone’s time, imagination, and career outside his more immediate association, and ultimate popularity, with The Family Stone. While the focus here is on the Listen to the Voices CD, many of the broad observations apply to both works, and in fact they are best appreciated together.
More to the point, Palao’s Sly Stone retrospectives may work best not simply as a pair of CDs, but rather as concise reference guides in the context of a much larger and more comprehensive album collection. Much of the keen insight Palao offers will only be meaningful with a full complement of master takes, hit singles, obscure covers, and forgotten dance novelties against which to compare these studio cuts. For this reason, there are at least two ways to approach Listen to the Voices: Sly Stone in the Studio – 1965-1970. The first is to appreciate the depth and flexibility of Stone’s musical imagination as he worked professionally with a wide range of recording artists, and to simply enjoy the consistently great music that resulted from the collaborations. There is no denying the deep groove of Little Sister’s “Stanga,” the emotional clarity in The Beau Brummels’ “Are You Sure,” or the bizarre amusement of the Small Fries’ “French Fries.” It doesn’t require focused musical scholarship to recognize that Stone had the ability to produce music that would satisfy his own musical goals as well as those of his peers. At the level of providing terrific music, and giving some unifying credit to Stone as the creative force guiding its production, Listen to the Voices is a success and should be recommended to anyone who is a fan of Sly Stone, R&B music, pop radio hits, or the late 1960s in general.
The second way to approach Listen to the Voices is to treat it as a unifying document of Stone’s musical and professional capacities. Palao is correct to describe Stone’s virtuosity in the studio, using the whole recording environment as his instrument, and this collection of tracks proves that Stone could make his skills fit the needs of many different kinds of music, encompassing instrumentals, electronic sounds, thick funk tracks, catchy pop hooks, etc. Furthermore, the inclusion of multiple renditions of songs on the CD – e.g. “For Real” and “Life & Death in G & A” – either at different stages of development or by different artists altogether, effectively demonstrates Stone’s ability to creatively re-imagine his material without sacrificing any underlying character. For the listener who is genuinely intrigued by Stone’s presence and abilities in the studio, such tracks are really fun to hear and Palao’s concept is easily illustrated.
Unfortunately, Palao also makes liberal comparisons to dozens of recordings that are not included on the disc, so any meaningful evaluations are frustratingly unavailable to anyone who doesn’t own, say, the original records by Billy Preston, Abaco Dream, or any of the numerous other artists who are identified in the liner notes as significant points of reference in defining Stone’s musical development.
It is in this second context – as a useful resource for shedding light on lesser-known studio recordings – that I would suggest caution for anyone who is not already quite knowledgeable about Sly Stone’s career as well as the broader musical trends of the era. Clearly, Alec Palao addresses the same caution on the first page of his notes when he assumes “a certain familiarity on the part of the reader,” but this assumption seems to give license to a disjointed narrative describing an equally disjointed sequencing of the CD tracks. Perhaps the organization of the liner notes and musical selections is a deliberate way of making the collection as kaleidoscopic as Palao’s impression of Sly’s creativity in the studio. If not, there doesn’t seem to be much advantage to scattering the track sequence without regard to chronology, style, or artists. I, for one, would find it more interesting and illuminating to hear the tracks by Freddie & The Stone Souls grouped together in order to appreciate a cohesion and development of their sound. Or, if organized chronologically, perhaps one could pick up on the introduction of the Rhythm Ace drum machine Stone increasingly used in his home studio, or the new prominence of electric instruments. Instead, the potential to hear trends, identify styles, and draw critical comparisons is hampered by the disorienting ordering of the tracks.
Make no mistake, this is a valuable album, and with some effort one is able to gain further appreciation for Sly Stone’s remarkable creative development and professional skills in a recording studio, and I believe this is Alec Palao’s fundamental motivation. For audiences who are intimately familiar with Sly Stone’s music and possess extensive album collections, Listen to the Voices could be the capstone that joins countless disparate characters and storylines. For those who are not so deeply entrenched, yet are intrigued by the concept and purpose of collecting such a range of studio efforts, the CD and accompanying liner notes may be the source of some frustration, as it really only offers the proverbial tip of a much more complex iceberg of historical circumstances and musical comparisons, and virtually demands the purchase of dozens more albums to fully realize its worth. It certainly sends a strong invitation to explore Alec Palao’s scholarship further, in the hopes that he clarifies more than a few of the stories he obscures here.
Finally, for those who are content to measure the worth of the album based simply on the music it contains, this is a homerun swing that collapses a terrific range of very entertaining, timelessly fresh, and satisfyingly different sounds into a single disc. Given Sly Stone’s genius in the recording studio, the final musical rewards are not surprising.
Reviewed by Rich Walter
Review Genre(s): Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Funk