Trying To Get To You

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Unintentionally Post-Modern Soul Of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings

It would be easy to dismiss Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings as an exercise in nostalgia, but that would be a mistake. Sure, there's an obsessive dedication to capturing the sonic elements of classic soul records; the horn arrangements, microphone placements, drum sounds, vintage gear, etc., but it's clear that Jones and producer and Daptone Records head Gabriel Roth are committed to classic soul as an ongoing concern as opposed to being mere preservationists. Whether it's simply a matter of aesthetic preference or a greater desire to return to a musical Eden, in their minds at least, it's all about the authenticity.

But there's an unwritten rule in music that if you're going to work in a well worn genre without expanding its boundaries, you have to have great songs and a great singer, and unfortunately, with their new album, I Learned The Hard Way, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings have proven once more that they are in possession of neither.

Like their previous albums, I Learned The Hard Way is an amalgam of late 60's and early 70's soul stylings. There's hints of Stax, late 60's Chess Records soul and early Philadelphia International. And once again, the precision with which producer Gabriel Roth captures the sound is impressive, but only impressive in the way a tribute band impresses - you're impressed in the moment with the meticulousness of the re-creation, but ultimately, it rings hollow.

None of the above would matter if the songs were great, but there isn't a great song here. Occasionally good, yes, but more often sounding like a paint-by-numbers home soul kit, like the cliched track about a lover with a wondering eye, "Window Shopping." The sentiment of "Money" may be absolutely true, but the track itself sounds silly, and it'll only make you run to your stereo to put the O'Jays "For The Love Of Money" on. Perhaps the songs could transcend the mediocre if Jones could become a singer who makes the listener actually feel something (the whole damn point of Soul music), but she merely sounds like a soul singer - she doesn't sing particularly soulfully. If you put her on any Stax compilation, she'd be a second or third tier presence at best.

What works about Jones is her story; the persistence, the dedication, her partnership with the Dap-Kings and her current success. And it is a great story. I'm happy for her; she's busted her ass. But while her music may be a soul experience, it's never a true experience of soul.

And it's ironic given their soul roots, but what Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings have unintentionally created is the ultimate expression of post-modernism; the stylistic form of the music is their content, instead of the emotional expression within the songs themselves. That has won them a career and much goodwill, but it will never have them matter, and great soul music, no matter the decade, always matters.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

E Street Radio Broadcast: Springsteen In The 1990's

Last week, Sirius/XM's E Street Radio broadcast another roundtable discussion that I participated in. This time, the topic was Bruce Springsteen in the 1990's, a decade that many fans, myself included, view with varying degrees of ambivalence. I hesitate to say that it was a "lost" decade, as Springsteen wrote and released some wonderful music, but looking back, it's clear that things didn't work with the same consistency as they had in the 1970's and 80's. And as a new generation of great rock bands emerged in the early part of the decade, Springsteen's place in the rock world was somewhat upended and newly up for grabs.

My co-panelists for the discussion were Flynn McLean and Jonathan Pont of Backstreets Magazine, and John Franck, the only man in the world I know who can speak expertly about both Springsteen and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. We had a lot of fun, and I think it comes out in the broadcast. And we are not shy with the criticism.

Download and enjoy.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three