Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – I Learned The Hard Way (2010)

I’m torn – the Dap-Tone sound is wonderfully retro, harking back to a golden age of soul, reliving some brilliant moments, mainly channeling Stax and Muscle Shoals (some of my favourite soul music); on the other hand, it’s standing in the way of progress, of modernity, of moving forward.  All of the artists that this sounds like were making this music in a social and political environment where their race, their backgrounds and the cultural zeitgeist was completely different to modern-day New York.

Recorded on an eight-track, using lyrical tropes, vocal tics and arrangements that wouldn’t be out-of-place pre-disco, this is an exercise in wilful nostalgia – whilst this is a brilliant pastiche of the past, it’s a blind alley. People making this kind of music now are looking backwards, and recycling more than using the past. No doubt, these are great songs, and Jones and the band are talented individuals; their tastes run this way, and freedom of expression etc means you can play what you like, in whatever style you like, and if people lap it up, then perhaps it’s saying something about the state of soul music today, but something instinctively in me shies away from this.

It’s a pity, actually, as if I didn’t know that this was released in 2010, I’d be raving to all and sundry about a lost soul classic. Kicking off with “The Game Gets Old”, with John Barry-esque strings, the record sounds a lot smoother than the band’s gritty breakthrough release 100 Days, 100 Nights.  Keeping up the spy-film essence, the follow-up title track grooves along nicely, with Jones’s undoubtedly special vocals transporting you inside the song, and definitely drawing the listener into a connection with her.

“Better Things”, though, is just that – more soul and less Bond, there’s real sass here, with Jones sneering and strutting over a choppy little groove, sprightly and forward-looking, rejecting her former lover. It’s a real highlight, and one you can imagine burning up live. In fact, that’s the sad thing about this record – it’s a watercolour, in comparison to the undoubted oil painting of their live shows; strip the strings off “Give It Back”, let the crowd shout along to, and groove with the really tight rhythms of “Money”, and bop along to the happy uplift of instrumental “The Reason” (which I bet goes on for a lot longer than the 2:19 on the record) and you’ve got a smashing live EP.

“Window Shopping” starts with a strange little recitative, reflecting on another failing relationship, sliding with cocktail lounge organs and shuffling drums behind another big wail from Jones. Her voice, while undoubtedly talented is sometimes latched onto some pretty laboured metaphors, such as the key one on this track – she never fails to make them sound convincing, but I’m constantly reminded of a functions band on steroids playing some “new” material: talented but unoriginal, and rather behind the times. “She Ain’t A Child No More” feels a lot more Motown, and has an almost British-pastiche kind of sound, fighting against wayward mothers of all things, and has some bite, but from here, the record does start to drag, with probably a few too many track between here and the beautiful finale, “Mama Don’t Like My Man”, reminiscent of Sam Cooke, but without the great man’s deep emotional reading of what could be a true soul classic.

I’m still torn. Heard without prejudice, this is pretty good soul music, but when you know when it was made, it makes you wonder quite why this needed to be made. Is American urban soul music really that lost for ideas? Or are the conditions right for a revival band to make it bigger than the club circuit? I blame Mark Ronson…

Key Tracks: Better Things/Money/Mama Don’t Like My Man

6/10

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One thought on “Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – I Learned The Hard Way (2010)

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