When you’re growing up, the music your parents listen to is, by default, rubbish. As your own personality starts to develop, you become keener to distance yourself from what you perceive as a suffocating influence and carve out your own identity. This doesn’t just apply to music, but clothes, attitudes and the company you keep. However, as you reach adulthood, it’s surprising how much you’re influenced by that music that you once dismissed, and a lot of the time, you learn to appreciate it for what it is and maybe in some cases, even like it. Anyway, that’s the excuse I’m giving for being a fan of Hall & Oates and for currently working through a fairly extreme Steely Dan phase.
A corollary of this hastily sketched-out theory is that everybody likes Motown and 60s soul music. Whether you grew up with those tunes or have assimilated them through your childhood, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t like the hits of Marvin Gaye, for example. This makes it surprising how few acts there are in today’s musical landscape who ape this particular style, especially considering the lack of originality around and artists‘ keenness to pilfer whatever they can like unsubtle magpies. It’s not the trendiest genre by any means, but if it makes people happy, you’d imagine it would be more than just a niche interest for the Class of 2010.
However, for some acts, it’s eternally 1969. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings are such a band and it’s an approach which has won them many friends. They may not be deified as cultural trailblazers any time soon, but their albums sales are steady and they’re fast cultivating a glowing reputation on the live circuit.
If you haven’t heard them before, you’re wrong, you actually have. Well, maybe not Sharon Jones, but the Dap-Kings certainly; they’re best-known for recording and performing with Amy Winehouse circa Back to Black, and I Learned the Hard Way is their fourth album with Sharon Jones.
Recorded on an eight-track tape machine, I Learned the Hard Way is so indebted to the sounds of 1960s America, Greece is thinking of giving it a loan to bail it out. It doesn’t break any new ground whatsoever - the songs are tales of men, love and loss, and all sound familiar on the first listen but, as previously mentioned, this immediate recognition brings about a Pavlovian release of endorphins.
A wonderfully warm brass announcement opens I Learned the Hard Way and from that point, it’s a lesson from Soul Music 101. Sharon Jones has a voice which, while not necessarily as expressive as Amy Winehouse’s, is exponentially more powerful, and comparisons to Aretha Franklin are inevitable. Ronettes-style backing harmonies and “ooh”s are liberally applied to the majority of tracks, and The Dap-Kings show their professionalism with expert fills, licks and riffs at every turn, demonstrating a band at the peak of their powers who clearly love music. It makes you wonder: who else is doing this kind of thing anymore? In the UK, we only seem to have Beverly Knight, whose songs often sound cloying and trite, as everyone else is lured by the potential bounty pay-day of commercial, 21st Century R&B.
This isn’t to say that I Learned the Hard Way is a victory of style over substance. A feeling of brooding and impending menace pervades a large portion of the album, with the squealing, freeform jazz of the middle eight of Money probably the best example of this lurking uneasiness. While always a soul album first and foremost, it dips its toe into gospel (the urgent She Ain’t No Child No More), cabaret stylings(Without a Heart) and the glorious closer, Mama Don’t Like My Man, has the feel of a Nina Simone-interpreted 1940s standard. In fact, after battling with and against menfolk and their assorted myriad trials and tribulations during I Learned the Hard Way (it certainly seems an apt title), there’s a kind of delicious irony that, upon emerging bruised and bloodied on the other side, it’s Sharon Jones’ “mama” who puts the brakes on any blossoming relationship with withering matriarchal putdowns - “[she] don’t like he way he dresses, or the cigarettes he smokes / Don’t like the company he keeps, or the colour of his jokes”.
While Amy Winehouse’s distressed junkie chic keeps her on the front pages, she’ll always sell more records than Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, and that’s a real shame, because when I Learned the Hard Way really comes together - such as the dovetailing brass and guitar on instrumental The Reason - it truly is a wonderful thing. Sure, it may not be the hot, new sound of 2010, but this music is timeless, and even when the subject matter is modern (as it is on Money), it still sounds like it was first dreamt up by an old Mississippi delta bluesman.
In honesty, a whole album of perfectly-executed retro soul can be a little wearing, but the craftsmanship carries it through, and the sheer joy of hearing a band go against the grain in the way that this band do, makes I Learned the Hard Way fully deserving of your time.