[25 October 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Larry Graham is best known as the bassist for Sly & the Family Stone during that band’s pinnacle in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. You can either thank or blame Graham for inventing the slap-pop style of funk bass playing that has been employed by everyone from Flea to Victor Wooten to Les Claypool. After leaving the Family Stone, Graham formed Graham Central Station and released a handful of mildly successful soul/funk albums. Graham’s career was lost through most of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Then Prince came to the rescue. Graham was featured on Prince’s unforgettable, revue-style 1998 tour that also included fellow soul survivor Chaka Khan. Prince produced and dominated GCS 2000 (1998), but Prince’s own commercial clout was much-diminished by that point, and the album flopped.
Raise Up is Graham’s first album since. Despite the Central Station credit on the cover, this is essentially a solo album. The band is all-new, and Graham wrote and produced most everything here. Prince plays a significant role again, but this time on only a few tracks. In short, Graham, at 66, still has his chops. He’s still enthusiastic. He’s probably a lot of fun to see live. But, unless you are a hardcore fan or one of the few remaining Prince completists, you really have no reason or use for Raise Up in your life.
The album is the type of mish-mash of workmanlike new songs, recycled material, and covers that is typical of State Fair Circuit-type veterans like Graham. The drum corps intro is nifty, but after that point, Raise Up‘s greatest feat is it manages to be dignified and is not embarrassing. As if to remind listeners of what Graham is famous for, the subsequent song is called “Throw-N-Down the Funk”. Indeed, it is funky, with Graham thundering away on his bass, with brassy horns and shrill synth chords helping it come across as squarely early-‘90s production. The squishy “No Way” and propulsive “Movin” have a similar feel, but the latter is given an extra boost from some scorching Prince guitar work. “Shoulda Coulda Woulda” is almost straight blues, again bolstered by Prince’s guitar and backing vocals. Another midtempo track, “Hold You Close”, represents Raise Up‘s nadir. Graham’s bass voice can still hold a tune, but here it’s a faceless, forgettable one that is done no favors by the equally faceless band.
A couple of tracks that work, do so because they recall vintage Sly & the Family Stone. “Movin” features coed vocal interplay very reminiscent of “I Want to Take You Higher”. Rafael Saddiq and Graham’s wife Tina lend their voices to closer “One Day”, a genuinely affecting track whose optimistic lyrics are undercut by its melancholic arrangement. The song and its bassline in particular are very reminiscent of Sly’s “If You Want Me to Stay”, a curious turn of events as Graham did not play on that track.
Maybe the most obvious signal of Raise Up‘s mere serviceability and lack of aspiration is Graham’s decision to include yet another cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”. Yes, Graham can nail the bassline, but no, his version is not nearly as funky as the original. It isn’t even as funky as Red Hot Chili Peppers’ version. And who knows why Graham decided to record “new masters” of three Graham Central Stations tracks from the 1970s, one of which is itself an Al Green cover. The rehashes outshine the new material. Maybe that’s the point, but the too-clean production renders the new versions impotent compared to the originals.
The one true moment worth repeated listening on Raise Up is the title track. Prince plays almost all the instruments, and it’s the kind of slinky, minimalist funk that the diminutive one mastered decades ago. Still, it is a reminder of how Prince changed the paradigm of funk and r&b to such an extent that it turned a lot of Graham Central Station’s works into oldies. It might just be the best thing Prince has done in decades, too. Of course, Prince’s innovations would not have occurred without the pioneering work of Sly & the Family Stone, Graham Central Station, P-Funk, and others. How odd, and yet fitting, it is that both Prince and Graham have come together on such a backward-looking project as Raise Up.