REVIEW: Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings – I Learned the Hard Way


I’ve listened to Monica, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige in the last six months, and on no level does anything they’ve done compare To Sharon Jones.

Sharon Jones was a woman born ten years too late. Her voice, an instrument of robust soul, was meant for such session musicians as the Funk Brothers at Motown, Booker T and the MGs at Stax or Al Green’s rhythm section at Hi Records. Given that she started a career in the mid 1970s, it wasn’t meant to be. She did not channel her aspirations into disco or house music like Gloria Gaynor and Martha Wash. Her voice is sloe gin on a lazy afternoon or a pained cry on an empty sidewalk on a cold rainy night. Soul music. The child of the blues. Let’s take this moment to praise the heavens for Daptone Records, their house band the Dap Kings and for soul music being what it is in 2010. Because of these very things, Sharon Jones is allowed to be phenomenal. Her debut 100 Days, 100 Nights was incredible, but as the Dap Kings and Jones begin to learn and grow as musicians, their latest release, I Learned the Hard Way is infinitely better and a master stroke of a release.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – “She Ain’t A Child No More” – WOXY Lounge SXSW 2010 from WOXY on Vimeo.

You can tell that all involved parties have serious chops as session musicians. The economy of this release clocking in at 39 minutes of excellence is most impressive. There aren’t meandering interludes or extended gospel breakdowns here. A song starts, and is finished in roughly three minutes and thirty seconds. There’s a classic ethos at play with the label and the artists here that is commendable. The adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is at play here, too, as the album involves significant retread topics here, of broken hearts and lovelorn romance.

But Sharon Jones’ voice is so rich and the Dap Kings so undeniably talented that getting angry at them for trying and succeeding at doing the exact same thing is silly. I’ve listened to Monica, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige in the last six months, and on no level does anything they’ve done compare to this. Once again, Daptone Records, like Stones Throw recordings as well, is an outside the box independent that carves their own niche and answers to their own section of the universe. Questions like, “Are Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell moved to do a jam session with James Jamerson because of this release?” are the goal here, and the answer is most assuredly yes.

There are twelve solid productions here. Title track “I Learned the Hard Way” is a showcase for the mega-talented Daptone horns that punctuate Sharon Jones’ magnificent voice on a track about the difficult lessons of lost love. Tracks like “Mama Don’t Like My Man” hearken back to songs like “Gee Whiz” by Carla Thomas, or anything out of the Mary Wells canon, basic blues instrumentation and backup vocals straight out of the sharecropping to Chicago style dot the song and set it off tremendously. There are drum pickups here that due to the analog style recording sound like they came directly from Benny Benjamin’s drums in Motown’s famed “Snakepit.” From beginning to end, this album approaches and meets long ago established and presently forgotten standards of sonic excellence.

In final, a group like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings need to exist. Even if current music styes and concepts are not advanced forward by them being active and talented, they set the bar for other musicians and performers to reach. Note perfect replication of a long forgotten elegance in popular music is a more than commendable aim. Kudos.