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Tribute albums just dont have enough mohawk

Different Strokes By Different Folks shows us why tribute albums sink and how they could float

Itís no secret that the Grammy Awards celebrate the business of music more than the music itself. So when Sly Stone appeared Wednesday on the Grammy Awards with musicians such as Maroon 5, Joss Stone and Robert Randolph, it seemed less of an actual tribute to the funk legend and more of a promotion tool for Sonyís new compilation ìDifferent Strokes By Different Folks” ó which just so happens to feature the previously mentioned artists.

And while it was cool to see Sly, who had long disappeared from the public because of cocaine addiction, the performance was spotty and full of awkward jolts and pauses. (But Sly did sport a wicked blond mohawk!)

Sly and The Family Stone undoubtedly deserve the renewed interest in its music. The group paved new ground with its composition of both men and women, blacks and whites. It daringly addressed late-1960s politics against a backdrop of psychedelic funk.

However, itís strange how record labels (both major and independent) have decided that whenever an artist or group needs commemoration, it should be done via a tribute album. For example, folk artist John Fahey and indie singer-songwriter Elliott Smith both received recent tribute albums made of other artists covering their songs.

Tribute albums rarely are good or interesting. They usually sound slapped together in a studio without much thought and only a few decent contributing artists. The main purpose of these albums, in fact, seems to be proving that the honored artistís uniqueness cannot be matched or reproduced.

ìDifferent Strokes By Different Folks” is no different. Less than half the tracks are good to excellent, while the rest just make you wish for the real thing.

The main problem with this particular tribute album is that most of the covers do not stray enough from the original. Many songs rely on the samples, and often it sounds as though the group is simply adding a couple of new instruments and singing over Sly and family.

The songs that do succeed are those that incorporate hip-hop. Sly songs have a long history of being sampled in hip-hop, and it makes sense for the ìtribute” album to show that enduring impact of Slyís work.

Big Boi (of Outkast) contributes to two songs, which both shine. Here, Big Boiís dirty South collides with Slyís hippie West Coast, and the resulting songs sound truly revisioned rather than just reworked.

Another highlight is the collaboration between Chuck D (of Public Enemy), DíAngelo and Isaac Hayes. Chuckís and Hayesí deep vocals intertwine beautifully, and Chuckís urgent rap captures the spirit of Sly and The Family Stone.

The rest of the record is a mediocre hodgepodge of artists ranging from John Mayer to Moby to the Nappy Roots. And like the actual Grammy performance, in the end, itís just subpar Sly. And worse ó with no mohawk.

ó Keri Carlson welcomes comments at [email protected].

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