ALBUM REVIEW: “I Learned the Hard Way” — Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings (Daptone)

Sharon Jones, Bosco Mann (right) and the rest of the Dap-Kings are busting out this time, whether the so-called mainstream lets them or not.

I’m not gonna sit here and bitch and moan about how unfair the music business is — that’s a given.

OK, maybe I will.

In this particular case, my complaint is that a strong, thick, middle-aged black woman with a dynamic voice, born in James Brown’s hometown and living in the center of the universe, can’t get noticed by the mainstream. Yet for years, all these less-talented English chickies, all white and cute and too young to remember the Godfather, have reaped all the attention and acclaim for being such good soul singers.

All this even though this woman fronts the same band that backed Amy Winehouse on her breakthrough album. (And I’m not lumping Winehouse in with all the other young English soul singers — hell, she’s wasted more talent than most of them ever possessed.)

Sharon Jones, 53, of Brooklyn via Augusta, Ga., should have been a star years ago; a recent New York magazine article, an excellent piece by onetime Daily News music scribe David Browne, tells of an audition in the ’80s when a recording executive told her to step back and let her younger, skinnier, lighter-skinned friend take the mic.

But now, after a decade together — and Jones’ personal quarter-century sojourn from heartbreaking auditions, to singing in a wedding band, to singing to inmates while working as a guard at Rikers, to singing with people from Lou Reed to Michael Buble to Phish — she and the Dap-Kings have made yet another convincing argument for being the coolest group on the planet: their fourth album, “I Learned the Hard Way.” And, Justin Bieber magazine covers aside, the so-called mainstream is being yanked by the earlobe whether it wants to or not.

If you’re a real music fan, you probably have heard of her at least by osmosis in the past five years. They’ve been playing all over the country, and have reaped great word-of-mouth (I first heard of them years ago through a good friend then living in Brooklyn), favorable press, sold-out theater shows on both coasts, and invites to large festivals (such as Outside Lands, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, last August).

If you’re less musically attuned but are a regular moviegoer, you still might have heard her and not realized it. The song in the opening credits of “Up in the Air” was the Dap-Kings’ 2002 version of “This Land Is Your Land” — Woody Guthrie meets Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” a seamless weaving of two seemingly disparate American cultures that makes it, in its own way, the best and most important version of the song recorded since Guthrie’s.

Their first disc since 2007’s stellar “100 Days, 100 Nights” — which will stand out as one of the great soul albums when all is done — doesn’t hit the peaks of its predecessor. That’s certainly no putdown; after all, we’ve had 2 1/2 years to let the last album digest, and anyone would be hard-pressed to equal the raw power of its title tune and the over-the-top exuberance of “Tell Me.” But despite that, “I Learned” is everything that fans have been raving about for a long time.

Jones’ three-octave vocal delivery is amazingly supple and versatile; she can be as raw as burlap and as smooth as velvet and as Sunday as a church, whatever the song calls for. And the ultra-tight Dap-Kings — an octet led by her bass player/arranger/producer/record label owner, Bosco Mann (Gabriel Roth) — go faithfully wherever she goes, providing the right mood for the right moment. And the right time frame, too — in this case, the late ’60s to mid-’70s.

The new album’s high point is the title song — a hybrid of Memphis-style brass, Philly soul harmonies and an impassioned vocal that alternates between that Philly smoothness and Muscle Shoals grit, and hooks that wouldn’t have been out of place on an AM radio in 1973. “Better Things,” between Jones’ muscle and the band’s lilting horns, wouldn’t have been out of place, either. (The tune also would’ve fit in nicely in the late ’90s, with those few bars of staccato dancing piano a la Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop.”) In either case, one can picture Jones at the mic in a blowout ‘Fro and patchwork bellbottoms and platforms and blue eye shadow and false eyelashes instead of the styling dresses she sports in 2010.

Jones goes back to ’70s Georgia, figuratively, on “Money,” getting as mighty and shouty and raw-throated as Lyn Collins (The Female Preacher) backed by The J.B.s. “Still Be True” hews close to the Brown sound, too. But in terms of sheer vocals, her peak performance on this album is “Give It Back.” Backed by another lazy Southern groove, her delivery starts off with all the subtlety of Gladys Knight or Mavis Staples, then builds ever so slowly through over the next three minutes to an angry ultimatum to her man. “She Ain’t a Child No More” comes close, full fury over a stylish, soulful orchestration that conjures early-’60s Ray Charles.

Jones and the Dap-Kings are the resto-mods of the music business. Resto-mods, if you’re not attuned to car culture (and it’s unavoidable living in the heart of California), are restored cars where the bodies and chassis are the same, but just about everything else, from the engine to the wheels to the fuel injection to the sound system, is ultra-modern. The body and engine of the band are straight-out early-’70s Mopar muscle with a killer new paint job; the route to success, though, is high-tech.

Because of the word-of-mouth that’s accompanied them — and most certainly because of modern social media — they’ve managed to kick off the new album with a late-night TV blitz almost unheard of for an act not signed to a major label and without much commercial radio play, if any. And perhaps “I Learned the Hard Way” is the album that turns the music industry around for the better. Enough with the kiddie pap and the prefab, electronically corrected “pop” crap — we’re starving for real talent and experience, regardless of age. We’re starving for something classic, yet new at the same time.  We want a musical resto-mod. Here it is.

(Album reviews are going to be a regular part of Franorama World. If you know of an album I should hear, for better or worse, or want to send along your new recording, email me at franoramaworld@gmail.com For disclosure’s sake: I bought this one.)

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3 Responses to “ALBUM REVIEW: “I Learned the Hard Way” — Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings (Daptone)”

  1. ERic Says:

    Fran
    Thanks for the review. I am about to slap a copy of this disk in the CD player and give it a listen. This is the RnB we want to hear, not that garbage called RnB that has been forced down our throats by the record industry.
    I’ve been a fan of this band for a number of years, I hope they break through and get more popular.

  2. jmucci Says:

    Great review Fran! And yes, this band is the real deal…I have their first 3 albums – great stuff. Haven’t heard the new one yet…but looking forward to it.

  3. ALBUM REVIEW: “Together” — The New Pornographers (Matador) « Franorama World Says:

    […] Williams’ “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” complete with the Dap-Tones horns and a ’70s Stones […]

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