Synthesizers killed soul music sometime around 1980. Technology made a lot of new things possible, but it somehow also made a lot of old things impossible. Listen to any anthology of soul that extends into the 80s and you can hear that moment where the synths and drum machines start to creep in and everything goes to crap.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ raison d’être is to re-create the long-lost sound of real soul and funk, much as I am told scientists are in the process of re-creating the woolly mammoth. This is a worthy project and they have been very successful at it; if you put on I Learned the Hard Way without my knowing what it was, and told me it was recorded in 1973 instead of 2010, I’d believe you. This is what we call authenticity – or at least, you know, a credible simulation of authenticity, which is just as good.
A lot of the Dap-Tones’ credibility comes from Sharon herself, a native of Augusta, GA, home of James Brown. In the 70s she was an in-demand backup singer with a promising career, but the 80s killed that too. For awhile she worked as a prison guard at Rikers Island – how’s that for authenticity? – before making another try at a music career in the late 90s. Her first album with the Dap-Kings was released in 2002, and I Learned the Hard Way is their fourth effort. I don’t know all their stuff but from what I’ve heard they keep getting better and better at what they do – the arrangements more intricate, the rhythms looser and funkier, the interplay between the singer and the band more telepathic.
How much can I really say? You know if you like this kind of music. If you do, and you’re hungry for something new with a classic feel, you will not be disappointed in I Learned the Hard Way. But meanwhile, you need to hear the Dap-Kings version of Kenny Rogers & the First Edition’s “I Just Dropped in to See What Condition My Condition Was In,” of Big Lebowski dream-sequence fame.