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

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Retro soul band Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings may have existed for only ten years, but the band's ability to bring out Jones' heartfelt vocals make them sound as if they have played together much longer.  Nowhere is this more evident than on their latest release, I Learned the Hard Way.  Fans of Stax and Motown should not miss this nod to R&B history, a gritty work that could have been released in the mid-to-late sixties.

When Jones sings "it hurts me inside just to hear your name" on the title track, the listener believes every word she croons.  The slightly rough edge to her voice suggests someone who has lived through hard times, and she brings that experience to each track on this album.  The narrator on the finger-popping "Better Things" proudly declares her independence from a bad relationship, and thus Jones's voice takes on a strident tone on this catchy song.  Other cuts take on a bluesy edge, such as "Money": "I got to pay my bills, got to pay my rent/I'm hungry and I'm tired, but my money's all spent," Jones wails, sounding truly despondent.

One of the standout tracks in terms of lyrics, arrangement, and vocal performance is "Window Shopping," which details a woman telling her man that she's through with his wandering eye.  "Oh boy, you keep window shopping/You browse around with no intent to buy," she voices, as the organ and strings reflect her somber mood.  But the horns kick in when she declares that "right now I no longer need you."  The combination of a nuanced voice and superb instrumentation makes the song a perfect example of effectively emotional storytelling.  Storytelling also figures prominently in "If You Call," a tale of a world-weary woman, and Jones embodies the character with her voice alone.  When she sings "Doctor, doctor, come cut my heart out/'Cause it hardly beats at all," the listener can feel her sorrow and desperate clinging to her one true love.  Again, vocals and instrumentation come together to form something that truly moves and inspires. 

As on previous albums Dap Dippin', Naturally, and 100 Days, 100 Nights, the Dap-Kings provide just enough funky, finger-snapping background to cushion Jones' powerful voice.  No wonder the band has become a force in their own right; most notably, they backed Amy Winehouse on much of her Back to Black CD.  Clearly the eight-piece band are serious students of soul, as they recorded I Learned the Hard Way on an old Ampex eight-track tape machine.  This simple piece of equipment lends the songs a warmer, full-rounded tone with the bass complimenting the slightly echoing drums.  It also helps other instruments accomplish other effects, such as the twanging guitar on "She Ain't A Child No More."   The Dap-Kings know how to arrange songs properly, as the horns and strings never overwhelm Jones; for example, they perfectly accent the defiant mood of "Give It Back."  While the horns blare on "I'll Still be True," Jones's voice still growls and moans prominently, with the instruments there just to enhance the song's drama. 

The band also gets their turn in the spotlight on the Southern soul-soaked instrumental "The Reason," a funky horn workout that leaves no doubt of the group's sincerity in paying homage to vintage soul.  They are a first-class soul band with just the right amount of tightness, and they deserve as much of the credit for each track's emotional impact as Jones' powerful performance. 

Any student of retro soul who enjoys Duffy, Adele, Winehouse, and similar acts such as Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators will appreciate I Learned the Hard Way.  Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are keeping that classic R&B sound alive, and are perfecting that vintage sound even more with each release. 

For more information, visit the group's official website as well as their label Daptone Records

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