Here’s a question for you. Given all that Sly Stone has been through since his heyday four decades ago-not just the addiction but the general weirdness and shadowy stuff-wouldn’t it have been great for him to make a triumphant comeback? As far as second chances go, it would be pretty awesome.
Well, folks, I hate to say it, but I don’t think a comeback’s gonna happen for Sly. The new I’m Back: Family & Friends is a weird mishmash of covers, originals and remixes. Some of the music reasonably pleasant, but much of it is also incredibly unnecessary. The man himself-a pioneer in the fusion of rock and soul that opened the door for artists like Prince-has released next to no new music since the mid-Eighties. Over the past years, he’s re-emerged somewhat-playing shows (which I hear have been quite erratic) and there was that one Grammy tribute performance a few years back. He’s also reportedly got a good amount of music in the can, which is why I’m so puzzled that this new album is primarily comprised of remade versions of Sly’s original hits.
The remakes themselves aren’t bad. I mean, I’d imagine it’s pretty difficult to fuck up songs like “Family Affair” or “Stand!”, but…why remake them in the first place? It’s like listening to Sly Stone karaoke…only featuring Sly himself. Truthfully, he doesn’t even take the mic very much over the course of I’m Back, leaving much of the vocal heavy lifting to his band members and guest artists including Heart’s Ann Wilson and Bootsy Collins (whose schtick actually works pretty well on “Hot Fun in the Summertime”.) Sly himself sounds like…well, he sounds like an old Sly Stone (as opposed to the old Sly Stone.)
Two newly written (or at least newly released) tracks in the middle of the album suggest that there’s still a little fire left in the belly, even if they’re not groundbreaking. The uptempo “Plain Jane” gets a nice little groove going, and “Get Away” proves that while many things have changed over the last forty years, Sly’s taste in drum machines has not. These two songs (and a cover of the gospel standard “His Eye Is on The Sparrow”) are decent enough but don’t do much to indicate that 2011-era Sly Stone is capable of being anything other than…decent.
Have I yet mentioned that these warmed-over remakes were not the most egregious things about I’m Back? Someone had the bright idea to take these recordings and then add modern Euro-trash synthesizer mess on to them-and tacked several of these “remixes” onto the end of the album. If you’re old enough to remember Ten Years Too Soon (an album Sly’s label, Epic, released in the late Seventies) that featured disco-fied remixes of Sly classics), then you probably also remember that most Sly fans were pretty pissed off that these classic songs were given disco re-rubs. Folks, after you hear the dubstep remix of “Family Affair”, you will very quickly realize that things can get much, much worse than a little disco seasoning. As I was listening (and I’ll admit that I didn’t even make it all the way through all three songs), I couldn’t help but wonder who green-lit this mess?
I can’t remember the last time (if ever) an artist sold an appreciable amount of an album that consisted of remakes of his own songs. The guest artist gambit might have worked if any of the guests had actually been culturally relevant in the past two decades (I mean, look: I love Heart. But seriously?), and the remixes are just plain awful. So in the end, I’m left feeling sad and wondering if Sly’s being exploited somehow. The fact that I’m Back was released on an unknown label (Cleopatra Records) speaks volumes as well. While I’m sure many of Sly’s fans were hoping for even a hint of the magic that powered classic albums like Stand and There’s A Riot Goin’ On, I can assure you that there’s very little magic to be found when it comes to this curious (and unsatisfying) release.