Trying To Get To You

Monday, December 08, 2008

Thoughts On Gabriel Roth And Daptone Records

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine had a huge piece on Gabriel Roth and his Daptone Records label. I came away from reading the piece with an immense amount of respect for the amount of hard work Roth has put in to realize his vision – and a deeper understanding on why I don’t care much about the music he puts out.

Roth is a sonic fetishist, a purist, claiming that he “doesn’t like anything made after 1974.” And in his insistence on using vintage equipment, etc., he’s done a fine job of replicating the sounds of long lost soul and funk singles. But unfortunately, much of his music is only that – a replication. (Ironically, the exception to this is the Dap-Kings work with Amy Winehouse, but that was helmed by a producer who loves soul, but lives in the modern world - Mark Ronson.) In Sharon Jones especially, I hear nothing that makes her music resonate the way great soul does. Is it enjoyable as a sonic experience that approximates soul music? Sure. Does it do what soul really does at its best - raise your spirit, make you hope, dream and feel like you're dwelling in a world of possibility? Not on your life.

In fetishizing the sonics of soul, Roth has reversed the importance of the ingredients of soul – it’s not about a drum sound or a horn tone, it’s about a feeling, a feeling of emotional vulnerability and authenticity. (Roth thinks that it's about a feeling sonic authenticity first.) And when I listen to the music on Daptone Records, I get a cool vibe, the vibe of the hipster purist who has very impressively made his own way, but I don’t get the feeling, the feeling that James Brown once sang about – and that I look to music for, no matter what the genre.

Gabriel Roth may be a purist, but until he figures out that musical purity is a bore and a dead end, the music of Daptone Records will only be marginal, and only marginally enjoyable.


Mark Marshall said...

Nice post.

This was the case with the early Lenny Kravitz work - not that it musically suffered as a result, but he was a "vintage & analog everything" person. (Not that the songs suffered - "Let Love Rule" just kicks ass...)

The story I heard goes that he was taken aside by Robert Plant and advised that it might be a good idea to lighten the hell up.

And apparently he did, and that's when his career really took off.

UNfortunately, all of Lenny's subsequent studio tracks always sound unfinished to me.


Unknown said...

Well said.

MattMrdck said...

Couldn't agree more - Daptone Records (and records) - great idea, beautifully packaged but not great music, yet. Also agree that the band's terrific and am even able to say the latest Sharon Jones release is really close and certainly enjoyable.

Hope Gabriel & co. take heed, as I'd love to shout excitedly about future Daptone releases, if they warrant it.

Anonymous said...

I think you got it backwards when you said Roth/Daptone was about fetishizing the sound as opposed to the music. Because they love the music and the feeling, Daptone strips away all the technology that tends to take away from it in most modern music. If you see the interviews with Roth on MTV, they talk about how their sound is based on the MUSICIANS (and not the computer), which of course are really the essence of soul. The drum "sound" they get is from having a great drummer, not the recording technique. This is probably why Ronson not only tapped the Daptone studio to make Winehouse's album, but he used the Dap-Kings themselves to play the music on it.

Anyone who has ever seen Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings live can attest to that. You can find tones of reviews of their live shows (just google them) that talk about the feeling that they put into their music.

Go see them live and see if you still feel the same way.

Ben Lazar said...


I have seen Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings on three occasions, and while I've found it enjoyable, in that somewhat limited sense of the word, it's never touched or moved me in any way.

I am truly happy for Sharon's success, and for the success of the entire Daptone family; they've busted their collective ass and they deserve the recognition. But as someone who loves soul music passionately, I just have to call this like I see it.

Anonymous said...

What I've heard (Jones, Budos, Menahan) immediately engages me. It's after repeated listening that these recordings don't hold up for me. I burn out pretty quickly on most of it. Maybe it's because it starts to feel familiar so quickly. Max Night, the Kravitz comparison is right on the money. This is exactly how I feel about his work now and I too still love Let Love Rule. (The Plant story is great if it's true). I've never seen any of the Daptone acts live but I recently saw a Sharon Jones video that was mesmerizing. She's great. Not sure how the other bands fare without such a dynamic personality out front.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree with you less - Daptone stuff is great - to me Sharon Jones sounds so much better than Winehouse

Anonymous said...

Is the anything new out there that, "resonate(s) the way great soul does."?

That's no easy task, 'cause we're talking about some of the greatest records ever made.

There's at least 2 records Sharon and the Daptones do that I think qualify as great soul records:
How Long Do I Have To Wait for You? and Natural Born Lover?.

I actually like the James Brown drum sound. I think it brings quite a bit to the enjoyment of his records, no matter who's drumming.
The stuff JB did in the 80's and beyond didn't have it, and was worse for it.
Plus, Daptone tracks are more funk than soul, where feel means an awful lot. As for Ms. Jones, the woman can sing and entertain better than many.
Lyrically the songs might not be up to Al Green standards, but this is music to move butts for the most part, and it works on that level for sure.

Ben Lazar said...

Cody B,

Songs that resonate the way great soul does?

Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm Know Good" (which the Dap-Kings play on) and Joy Denalane's "Heaven or Hell" come to mind at once. Intensely personal and vivid with great grooves and rhythms. And modern, as well.

I'll check out the Sharon Jones songs you mentioned - I'm happy to be wrong.

Again, I truly respect what Daptone has built, and they success they're enjoying. I'm just personally disappointed that as a soul music lover, I'm so unmoved by their music.

Anonymous said...

Got it..if it doesn't do it for ya, it doesn't do it for ya. I always thought Soul was secondary to the whole Dap King thing...To me they came out of the Raw Funk scene..and in that vein they are excellent.

How do you feel about bands like the Diplomats of Solid Sound or the Bamboos?

For soulful singers, I'll take Alice Smith over just about anybody these days... and I like Donnie on the male vocal side.

Anonymous said...

If you listen to the progression of music on their albums, you will find that their first album (Dap-Dipping) was more funky and James Brown-ish, their second album (Naturally) was still funky but more soulful, and their third album (100 Days) is closer to a classic Stax kind of soul sound.

Because their music is being made NOW, some people feel that it's a slavish replica of another age. But if the same music would have come out in the 60's, I think it could compete fairly with the Stax/Motown/Mussel Shoals sound and nobody would complain that it lacks inspiration.

Unfortunately, Roth and most of the Dap Kings were born a couple of decades too late to enjoy that kind of success.

Anonymous said...

In the 60s and 70s I went to a wide variety of great funk, r&b and soul shows and still listen to many of the records (vinyl) of those days: JB, Aretha, Donnie Hathaway, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield,Ohio Players, Chambers Brothers, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye....
(Yep, I'm a senior citizen).
I was sitting in the rafters at the Apollo when the Dap Kings had their record release show in October 2007. It was the most soulful two hours I had spent in over 30 years. And when Sharon Jones and Lee Fields teamed up with the Dap Kings to sing "It's a Man's World" there was no question that soul music is still alive and these are the folks breathing the life into it.
Today's audiences are not accustomed to real musicians and real sweat...or real soul. They are looking for fireworks, lasers, smoke, flames, huge video screens, screaming guitar solos, mind-numbing electronic bass lines, and loud for the sake of loud.
Sharon Jones and the Dapkings reject that fluff and lay it all on the line for real soul and real funk by real musicians for real audiences. And Daptone's records are real: years behind and way above the quality of sound put out by major labels for our modern digital ears.
Unless you were a Jazz fan, the 60's was the same decade when we finally figured out that black musicians and white musicians could play great music together...and (--shocking as it may be--) white kids and black kids could dance on the same pop music TV shows...although it would be some time before mixed couples were shown.
The Dapkings are superior musicians in a superior band, playing soulful music that could --really-- have been written and recorded forty years ago. Sharon Jones is the real thing. And their records have the same sound and same edge as the great records that came out of Muscle Shoals and Stax.
Which hip-hop station nowadays would be playing Edwin Starr's "War" if it were being released today? Listen to Sharon Jones' "Stop Payin taxes" or their cover of the old Woody Guthrie song "This Land is Your Land".
The good old days weren't that good, but some of the music we heard was great. (And a lot of it wansn't.) Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings may not be the second coming of James Brown, but no one else today lays it out any better. Certainly not Amy Winehouse.

Unknown said...

Sooo funny how people tried to explain why they don't like a style of music becomes it is a reproduction of an old style. Say what? ... i know thirteen year olds playing PUNK, i know 18 year olds spending insane amounts of cash learning Be-Bop !! BE-BOP at Art/music schools, I know Latinos play classic Salsa/Merengue in popular top 40's radio and TV shows ..... so please please if you didn't get it 40 years a go.... you are not going to get it now... don't get me started with Classical music NOW that shit old

Anonymous said...

In compare to others Daptone Records are TRUE! No pro-Shit, no retro/vintage, no super brains. Just people doin the shit they like! Thats soo easy! Why talking bad bout it?