There was a time, several hundred years ago, when the “tribute record” was a rarity – novel, even. It was a chance for old to mind-meld with new, for young to pay respect to classic, for young and classic and old and new and youthful to all swan-dive together into a big vat of musical goodwill and share in a cross-generational dance party of love and joy and respect and stuff. And it was kinda cool. Then, about 20 minutes later, someone with a very crisply pressed shirt evaluated some returns, made some calculations and frowned thoughtfully. Shortly thereafter was born a minor cottage industry, one that pretty well necessitated its own real estate in the “various artists” shelves.
(When considered in a strictly academic manner and using needlessly large words, isn’t is fundamentally disingenuous anyway to suggest that you’re paying tribute to someone by playing their music in an exceedingly less influential manner than they did in the first place? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just play their version, maybe a little louder? Or give people ten bucks and a coupon they could redeem for the originals? Why does no one like my ideas?)
Well, whatareyagonnado, eh. These days you could place bar bets on what will come out more frequently, tribute records or Ryan Adams product, and the last month or so has been no exception for either. (Though in a venti cup of corporate synergy, “Different Strokes For Different Folks” was released as a Starbucks-only exclusive last fall. You can mocha if you try.)
None of this is to suggest that Sly and the Family Stone do not deserve a tribute record – indeed, it’s hard to think of a tribute that’s enough. But certainly this patchwork quilt, despite an above-average roster and the unstoppable sonic basis of Sly’s own music, ain’t it. The rest of this review will contain a great many words that could probably be boiled down to two: It’s fine. Hang on, my latte’s ready.
To be fair, “Different Strokes,” which has been hung up in production for forever, takes a relatively novel approach to the tribute idea. These aren’t covers, they’re “re-imaginings,” created using the original master tapes under the watch of the long-lost Sly Stone himself. These artists herein are playing with those originals instead of just playing them again.
It’s a cool little twist, and it’s certainly eyebrow-raising to learn that the long-invisible Sly was coaxed out of hiding to help, but it also means that everyone’s kept on a short leash. The Roots manage to power down “Everybody Is A Star” into the slinky, low-end-heavy “Star” (which appeared on 2004’s “The Tipping Point”), but that’s about as far as it goes. Because they’re playing in real time with the originals, no one can really put a distinct stamp on anything, or, for that matter, make it sound like much more than a killer karaoke night (sure, in the long run it’s better this way, but still). Devin Lima works up a decent lather on “If You Want Me To Stay” and novelty of the trinity of Chuck D, D’Angelo and Isaac Hayes on “Sing A Simple Song” is worth a few spins. But by and large, and I hate to keep coming back to this, barring some sort of tragic fire in the S section of your CD rack, it’s hard to imagine any circumstances in which you’d reach for any of them instead of Sly’s own “Greatest Hits.”
In fact, that bulk of the retoolings here are quickly forgettable. The obligatory Black Eyed Peas appearance comes courtesy of Will.I.Am, who amps up “Dance To The Music,” but just a little. Maroon 5 manages to squeeze the sense of unity pretty well thoroughly out of “Everyday People,” making it all jittery and loading it down with needlessly lively background vocals. A triumverate of currently marketable soulsters, John Legend, Joss Stone and Van Hunt, take a crack at “Family Affair,” and Buddy Guy and John Mayer slumber through “You Can Make It If You Try.” Disappointingly, though he’s first-billed above ubiquitous hangers-on Sleepy Brown and Killer Mike, Big Boi’s actual time on “Runnin’ Away” is hardly worth a featuring credit.
Taken on its own, “Strokes” isn’t a bad bad disc, but unlike most of what Sly recorded, it’s entirely without cause or reason, and in most cases, it’ll have trouble even getting people to look up from their laptops and New York Timeses. But it’ll hold the line just fine until the next tribute record comes out, and the next one, and the one after that. And so on and so on