CD Review: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, “I Learned the Hard Way”

Written by CD Reviews, Music

Retro-soul is a musical style in which contemporary artists attempt to recapture the sound and feel of the great soul music of the ’60s and early ’70s. Musical touchstones include the sounds of Motown, Stax, and Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. Among the artists who are purveying this style these days are Ryan Shaw, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, and The Revelations featuring Tre Williams. I would include Joss Stone’s first album, but she’s moved in a more pop-oriented direction since then. Raphael Saadiq and Maxwell are often thought of more often as neo-soul artists (a genre that fuses ’70s soul with hip-hop, jazz, and funk), but there is definitely a retro element in what they do.

If pressed, I would have to say that ’60s soul is my favorite kind of music, and by extension I’m also a big fan of retro-soul. So why is it that I can’t get more excited about Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings? I know, I know, everyone else loves them. I found their last album, the 2007 release 100 Days, 100 Notes completely weighted down with soul cliches. The new one, I Learned the Hard Way (Daptone Records), which will be released tomorrow, is an improvement, but I still find it somehow lacking. And what bothers me is that I can’t really put my finger on the problem. I should, by all rights, love this album.

I can’t fault Sharon Jones. Her voice is powerful and in the tradition of the great soul divas. The Dap-Kings have obviously studied the great soul records of the past, and they provide a nearly perfect recapitulation of the style. As I listen to the album for the fifth time, it seems to me that despite the nearly foolproof combination of a fine singer and wonderfully adept musicians, the whole thing just sounds lackluster to me. There is an energy that is a prime component of this music, and it’s just missing here.

This is hard for me to say without sounding arrogant, but it I think that if you are a more casual fan of soul music than I am, I Learned the Hard Way may be just the ticket for you. For people as heavily invested in the history and majesty of this great American art form as I am, the album just comes up a little short.