During the ’60s, American culture was all about race, power and speech. Everything was a controversial divide. Then there were artists like Sly and the Family Stone, who made soul music steeped in languages of peace, love and harmony. They had no barriers, and broke stereotypes of race and gender by doing the one thing they all had in common: performing music.

Sarah Royce
John Legend, Joss Stone and Big Boi all contribute covers of classic Sly Stone hits. (FROM LEFT: Courtesy of Sony Urban Music/Columbia, S-Curve and La Face)
Sarah Royce
Sarah Royce

In a time when inequality was rampant, Sly and the Family Stone found a common sound everyone could boogie to. Almost half a century later, a project to pay tribute to the electrifying ensemble has arrived. And while Different Strokes By Different Folks make an honorable effort to pay homage to the band, no catalogue of all-star artists could really recapture the unique flavor and poetic flare the Family once had.

Though there are few cases where a truly triumphant or even reasonably exuberant tribute album can be created (see the Notorious B.I.G.’s Duets: The Final Chapter), there’s always a money-hungry label with dollar signs in its eyes willing to give it a shot. The concept is to take the best music created by a once-great artist and combine it with music by today’s top artists to put together a sort of super album.

Different Strokes By Different Folks follows this trend and puts together some of the best contemporary vocals with Sly and the Family Stone classics. Though the release ultimately falls short of emulating its roots, the album’s impressive roster has some incredible combinations: the sultry and sweet voices of Joss Stone and John Legend and the fantastic guitar styles of John Mayer and Buddy Guy inhabit the same space.

But with the good also comes the bad, such as the not-so-triumphant return of Moby, who has been out of the spotlight for some time, although no one’s really noticed.

To its credit, the album contains inventive new takes on old songs such as “I Want to Take You Higher” featuring Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, or the mixed version of “Everybody is a Star” by The Roots, which first appeared on their album The Tipping Point. The remakes are all different takes on classic songs, but the artists sidestep the fact that sometimes a great song just doesn’t need to be remade. Think about it: Does anyone really need to hear the Maroon 5 version of “Everyday People”?

That’s the central problem with the album: It’s all fine and good, but most of the disc seems dated and inessential.

Different Strokes is a strong effort, but like so many others before it, the album never makes a real impact of its own beyond the scope of the original material. Every attempt at duplication and improvement stems from an idea that simply doesn’t work. There’s no chance that giving Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am a solo verse on any song is going to help a case. Next time someone decides to pay a tribute, it would be better to bake a cake, throw a party or whatever – just don’t make another dead-end album.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Sly and the Family Stone and Various Artists
Different Strokes By Different Folks

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