The current crop of indie-rock upstarts seem to have an infatuation with the old. Sure, music has always taken from its roots, but with bands like Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear and The Shins, it goes beyond that. They seem to want to have their music drip with their own sweat as they sit on their porch in the Appalachians, or drip with the ocean waves by their surfboards. This revivalist trend is not necessarily a bad thing, and I wouldn’t fault any of those groups for their sound– they do it well. However as with anything, people seem to have some sort of unconscious tolerance level that tells us to immediately begin writing something off as less than genuine. Whether that is even fair does not matter, it just simply happens. So while 2010's debut darlings Surfer Blood and The Morning Benders survive because they’re just really good at what they do, numerous other bands are written off for simply aping trends. With this in mind, enter Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings’ new release I Learned the Hard Way
. As with the rest of the band’s catalogue, the revivalist trend is taken to the extreme end. Hell, they sound like they’re actually
from the pinnacle era of soul, not just mimicking it.
In part this is why the group has always been a success, and I Learned the Hard Way
is no different. With their use of analog studio equipment, the group manages to capture a sound that seems so genuinely old, that if it were placed on the radio next to Otis Redding, you’d be hard pressed to tell that there’s about 50 years or so separating the two artists. Of course it’s one thing to sound like your predecessors, but that doesn’t eliminate the risk of your audience reaching that unconscious level of sourness; that uncanny valley. There is really only one thing that keeps Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings from falling into that pit: they’re really talented. As the front-woman, Jones’ voice is immediately gripping, taking you through the ringer on “I’ll Still Be True” swooning your soul on “Window Shopping”. It’s a voice that simply demands attention, as the best soul voices always are. Jones knows how to use her great range and soulful sound to colour these twelve tracks from simply good songs, to great ones. And that’s not even mentioning the horn section.
The Dap Kings deserve special mention themselves as incredible backing band. Opener “The Game Gets Old” welcomes the listener with a line that immediately reflects why the horn section is so well respected. The rhythm section is solid, ditto with guitar and backing vocals, but it’s the horns that are the reason why there is that “& The Dap Kings” tacked on to Sharon Jones’ name. They’re given a solo chance to shine on instrumental “The Reason”, and do so with aplomb; you can almost picture the band swinging to and fro. That’s before the improvised middle section featuring some great work on the tenor sax. The rest of the album they compliment Jones’ voice perfectly; whether it be in the fire of “Money” or the minor key blues of the soulful highlight “If You Call”. They are the kind of horn section that every band leader dreams of– tight but playful, with incredible range and dynamics. Jones’ voice is certainly the highlight, but the album just wouldn’t be the same without such a high quality band backing it.
Now a few albums into their career, enough to call them seasoned pros, and Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings still steadily move forward with their seemingly tireless brand of revivalist soul. Tireless because the band is just so damn good at what they do, it’s hard to dismiss. Despite are (curiously shortsighted) distaste for bands that “don’t evolve” or “don’t add anything new to the past”, I Learned the Hard Way
succeeds (maybe because it stares that silly notion right in the face and says “get lost jive turkey”– okay maybe wrong era, but you get the point). Most importantly it’s hard to argue against Sharon Jones because her voice makes you positive she could probably kick your ass. Not that it’s some sort of beastly, aggressive voice, but because it is a passionate one, full of fire. So pretty much if you don’t like this, you ain’t got no soul.