If there’s a single word that sums up There’s a Riot Goin’ On, that word is disintegration. It wasn’t just the Family Stone that was falling apart (although inter-band bickering and Sly’s increasingly ruinous coke habit weren’t exactly promoting togetherness). It was the whole country that was unraveling: the promise and optimism of the ’60s were slowly feeling like a bitter canard, America still tangled in the throes of a neverending war and fighting a Civil Rights battle that wasn’t yielding equality quite as quickly as it should have. Two short years earlier Sly had promised “You Can Make It If You Try,” but that mantra now seemed about as sound and realistic as “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Riot captures all of that — the feeling of despair, of exasperation, of still going through the motions of belief all the while wondering if your trust has been misplaced.

It’s not just in the lyrics — which were increasingly piecemeal and allusive — it was in thesound. The record is uncomfortably arid, Sly’s voice bone-brittle, loaded with cracks and fissures. He doesn’t sing melodies as much as suggest them, croaking his way across the heavy-lidded “Just Like a Baby” and mimicking a wah-wah guitar midway through the rubbery funk of “Africa Talks to You.” The whole band sounds as if they’re coated in molasses: everything is slowed-down, groggy, barely in place. Instruments enter and leave with little rhyme or reason, all of the players lazily spattering various shades of black on a dingy canvas. Bass lines go slack, organs wheeze and dawdle, guitars scratch like fingernails on the inside of a coffin. A crazed, disembodied yodel floats along the ether of the positively unglued “Spaced Cowboy.” The album’s most telling track? “(You Caught Me) Smiling,” the surprise in the title indicating what a rare occurrence smiling is. Riot, simply put, is a motherfucker, a milestone of popular music and a long, terrifying trip down the rabbit hole of busted dreams. Almost forty years later and there isn’t a damn thing that sounds even remotely like it. – J. Edward Keyes

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~ by crossmd on November 2, 2010.

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