Monday, April 12, 2010

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings “I Learned The Hard Way”

Even though I’d seen all the hype, this was the sort of thing that really didn’t appear to be down my street. The purple propaganda even came from those corners in the musical world that I trust and respect. Still, it didn’t sound like the kind of thing that was my bag, baby.

Then I was in Borders Books & Music in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, of all places, one day last week and they were playing something so remarkable and unusual that I knew almost at once exactly what it had to be: that new album everyone’s raving about by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. I never even bothered to check and see if I was right. I knew.

Trust the hype. This record, the group’s fourth, is simply astounding and outstanding. Without a doubt, it’s one of the most remarkable new musical statements I’ve heard in quite some number of years. It sounds like it could have come out of the thriving R&B scene from the 1960s that produced soul music’s greatest belters like Gladys Knight, Tina Turner, Mary Wells, Aretha Franklin or any number of others before any of these divas gave into corporate populism.

And those damn Dap-Kings are players who know their shit and can really play. They play for real. They’re crafty musical thinkers who provide raw, inspired and totally analog soundscapes that haven’t been heard since the days of Motown’s glory years – and support their volcanically soulful lead singer with a power forgotten in these days of digitally-crafted crap.

But there’s no copy-catting or revisionism going on here. It reminds you of those funky soul groups like Booker T. and the M.G.s, the Parliaments, Kool and the Gang, Earth, Wind and Fire, Ohio Players and the Commodores, musical aggregates that played their own instruments and could play rings around many jazz players. But The Dap Kings aren’t nearly as slick as all that. They build a groove with a movie scenarist’s sense of color and excitement. It reminds me of some of those H.P. Barnum/David Axelrod productions of the sixties – soul music in a modern setting. It’s raw and unaffected, never slick and sinewy.

And all of it is recorded live – no overdubs – on an ancient 8-track player that disallows re-takes or fixes. It’s soul the way it was meant to be…for real.

I came in pretty much as the store’s DJ cued this one up and it just grabs you and won’t let go. The title track is that sort of gritty early 70s, pre-Betty Davis soul that makes complete soulful sense, like it was written by one of the masters (Smokey Robinson, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Gamble/Huff, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, etc.). And Sharon Jones sings like she means every f-ing word – and there ain’t no questioning her about it.

I was totally hooked by the time Sharon Jones shouted out soulfully that “I’ve got better things to do than remember you” in “Better Things.” Then there’s the serious-as-your-life, broken-hearted love song to a departed loved one, “Money” (yes, money).

“Window Shopping” shows off Sharon Jones’ best qualities: a hurt sort of pride that comes out as a sad state of strength (The Dap Kings add extremely effective uses of organ – which solos nicely – and guitar to underscore the painful power and passion in Jones’ narrative). It’s hard not to fall in love with this group hearing this tune.

“The Game Gets Old,” “She Ain’t A Child No More,” “I’ll Still Be True” and “Without A Heart” all are so wondrously timeless that you’d think they were covers of great R&B standards. But they’re not. SJ&TDK have created something for the ages, not unlike what Sade might have done some two and a half decades before. Even the doo-wop take on “Mama Don’t Like My Man” doesn’t seem locked into the time period of its genre. It seems so sincere that it’s timeless.

“If You Call” is classically styled R&B with a great string and horn arrangement that recalls anything by Dinah Washington or Billie Holiday or any of the other jazz divas who were put into pop settings that worked for them much better than anyone would have ever guessed or hoped. It’s that good. And, yes, she is that good.

I Learned The Hard Way seems to traverse any number of outdated R&B modes. And the sole instrumental, “The Reason,” is refreshing. But it calls to mind that this tremendously invigorating program is too short by far. The world needs to hear more of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. And everybody needs to experience I Learned The Hard Way to learn the power music still has to move.

Check out the Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings here.

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