Contrary to expectations, Sly Stone actually manages to show up for his first album in 29 years, “I’m Back! Family & Friends.”
That can be a mixed blessing.
As anyone who’s been to one of Stone’s rare, generally catastrophic concerts can attest, the 68-year-old recluse’s modern-day gigs tend to be serviceable Sly & the Family Stone tribute shows that go along just fine … until the man himself appears.
If you want to add some sadness to your day, check out the YouTube footage from Stone’s visitation to last year's Coachella Festival, where his main contribution was berating his confused, well-rehearsed band and halting nearly every song cold for incomprehensibly paranoid speeches.
"I'm Back!" gives us an idea of what that show might have sounded like if Stone didn’t shut his band down midway through tunes. Released on Cleopatra (an indie label better known for its goth and metal bands), the new collection consists mostly of professionally rendered but superfluous re-recordings of his greatest hits from 40-45 years ago.
The original tunes relied on several different Family Stone singers, and this album’s ringers robustly re-create those vintage vocal parts. Then, every once in a while, for a verse or occasionally an entire song, Stone himself appears, sounding — how shall we put this? — Dylanesque, if it’s understood we’re talking about the Dylan of the 2010s.
A handful of classic-rock guest stars appear. Heart’s Ann Wilson duets with Stone on “Everyday People,” and it’s a relief when whoever is at the mixing board basically lets her take over the song, with Stone reduced to a background vocal as it goes along. Bootsy Collins talks his way through every nook and cranny of “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” annoyingly. The other star cameos are instrumental and include the Doors’ Ray Manzarek briefly playing the “Light My Fire” organ riff in the middle of “Dance to the Music.”
Did Sly really have much of anything to do with this album, other than making it to the studio for the 20 minutes it might have taken to record his parts? The answer is as tough to discern, and tougher maybe to care much about.
A more intriguing question surrounds the three tunes tagged on toward the end of the album that are not re-creations. Much ballyhoo has been made about the trio of previously unreleased numbers suggesting some kind of return to form. But the liner notes and other lore hint that “Plain Jane,” “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and “Get Away” were recorded a long time ago, possibly as far back as the late ‘80s.
It’s clear from the vocals, anyway, that these were not cut simultaneously with the other material, since Stone only sounds about 60 years old, not 90.
Regardless of when they were recorded, those three numbers are the only reason for a Stone cultist to buy the new album. They’re not bad, although Stone seems to have not known the words to the gospel standard “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” as his vocal mumblings there suggest an ancient guide vocal he never got around to replacing.
If you want a pop music story that makes Amy Winehouse’s fall from grace seem almost like a fairytale by comparison, Stone’s would be it. Since you get the hunch he was mostly just kind of propped up for the new album, its release doesn’t offer much more reason for optimism than the last three decades of dark rumors and inactivity. But if he’s not “back,” he is still alive – and so, for unrelenting fans, must be hope.