The Brooklyn-based band Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings has paved the way for other, often more successful "retro-soul" acts, namely Amy Winehouse (Members of The Dap-Kings backed Winehouse for her breakthrough Back To Black recording.) Subsequently, a number of critics dismissed this talented unit as being "revivalists" of classic ’60s and early ’70s soul. That's utter nonsense. The Dap-Kings' fourth release, I Learned the Hard Way, just might be their most consistent and finest effort to date.
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings aren't a crop of newcomers; they're a group of highly seasoned (and prolific) musicians who were also inspired by lesser known ’60s R&B/soul artists featured on numerous smaller U.S. labels, bands playing a style known as "Northern Soul." Dating back to the early 1990s, the NYC band The Soul Providers, which featured members of The Dap-Kings, provided a launching pad for two thriving Brooklyn soul labels and associated house bands (Daptone Records/The Dap-Kings and Truth & Soul/El Michels Affair). While The Dap-Kings backed soul singer Sharon Jones, El Michels Affairl supported forgotten soul crooner Lee Fields. Even though, in some regards, the two labels were rivals, musicians from one label often collaborated with musicians in the other label camp.
The crossbreeding only bolstered both labels, and The Dap-Kings have always been the cream of both talent stables. They are a contemporary Booker T. & the M.G.'s-type of house band, capable of easily executing shifts in mood and rhythm. The arrangements on the new record are subtle yet complex, accentuating the song's beat, similarly to James Brown's substitution of traditional back-up vocals with horns. Jones, a former corrections officer at NY's Riker's Island, witnessed performances by the likes of Brown while growing up in Georgia in the early ’60s. Her vocal delivery often comes hard, like Brown protégé Lynn Collins or an early Tina Turner. It became (and is) a perfect marriage.
Early ’70s San Francisco-based funk, namely Sly and The Family Stone and Tower of Power, inspire the sole instrumental, "The Reason," while the psychedelic-tinged "Better Things" grooves in a fashion similar to their cover of Shuggie Otis' "Inspiration Information" for the 2009 compilation, Dark Was The Night. And crate-diggers and enthusiasts can appreciate the Andre Williams atmosphere of "Money," an excellent companion to their earlier 2002 single "What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes." On the aching burner "If You Call," Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings find a perfect balance of restraint, orchestration (including strings) and delivery.
I Learned the Hard Way captures a band and its singer in full stride, with reverent confidence, while shedding the slick sheen of their 2007 100 Days, 100 Nights. To attach the dismissive "retro" tag is belittling. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings are simply a kick-ass soul band, pure but not simple.