Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings: I Learned the Hard Way

RIYL: Aretha Franklin, Black Joe Lewis, Mavis Staples

From the outside, it might seem like putting together an honest soul record isn’t such a hard thing to do – all you need is a nice-sounding room, a band of talented musicians, and some, y’know, soul – and from that point of view, it might be tempting to wonder just where in the hell Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have been since releasing the magnificent 100 Days, 100 Nights in 2007.

Making real soul music is sort of tricky, though; if it weren’t, the genre wouldn’t be in the mess it’s been in since the mid-to-late ‘70s. A lot of things have changed since soul’s heyday, leaving us in a musical bizarro world where people are more accustomed to hearing digital clatter than analog sweat, and as a result, it’s become extremely difficult to cut a soul record that doesn’t sound like a cheap pastiche. What can anyone add to the style of music that gave us Aretha, Otis, and Pickett?

Nothing, probably. Which is why it’s to Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ immense credit that they’ve been able to amass such a deeply satisfying catalog. They record using vintage gear, an affectation that sounds like a gimmick in the wrong hands – but their songs, while not as resonant as the true soul classics, deserve the retro treatment. Put another way: the band’s albums never sound like they’re trying to reach for the past – their traditional soul vibe sounds honest and earned, and the songs sound like they could have been recorded in 1968 or yesterday. You know, timeless – the way music is supposed to sound.

If you’re familiar with the band, you know what to expect from I Learned the Hard Way – raw, punchy rave-ups and bluesy ballads, all carried by an airtight rhythm section, shot through with bright brass, and topped off with Jones’ exhilarating vocals. You don’t listen to one of these albums expecting surprises; you expect some sweet soul music, and these songs deliver. These aren’t greenhorns imitating the form of those old classics and forgetting the function – like the title says, they learned the hard way. Let ‘em give you a lesson or two. (Daptone 2010)

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings MySpace page


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