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.


Cody B said...

I disagree..especially on Sharon Jones.

Anonymous said...

Great soul music is timeless. I love the video and can't wait to get my hands on the vinyl. Thanks for the post!

Mark said...

This album is fantastic, period. Don't take this guys word for it.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Ben here on Sharon Jones. She's great, the music is good, but is it soul? yes, it's their version of soul. Is it authentic? to them it is, but if you compare it to a Sam & Dave record, will it hold up? In 20 years years, no. Hell, compare it to a Bettye LaVette record and see if it holds up.

It's good music, it's authentic music, but it's a facsimile of what soul music is. All the parts are there, but it's just a little too "clean" in the bass & in the horns and it's missing the gravitas of what soul music is.

It is a damn good copy, I'll say that. Maybe we should call it Soul Lite? Hipster Soul?

Tiger Tiger said...

Had this come out in '66-67 it would still be talked about as one of the great soul/r'n'b records. Top notch songwriting. The horn charts are very good and the first 2 tunes especially can stand-up to ANY song in the soul sub-genre. Mind you, I'm not a fan of their previous records.
This record and Lee Fields' "My World" from last year are killer-bee!