Every now and then, chance does its part to set history back on track. In the heyday of soul and R&B, after singing backup for a variety of artists and performing with the Four Tops and the Drifters, Sharon Jones found herself out of the business and working as a corrections officer on Rikers Island. But in 1996, she ran into the folks at New York’s Desco Records while lending her pipes to her local church. After a few singles there and then a full-length on Daptone Records, Jones had made a bigger footprint on the industry than she had back in the day. Making up for lost time, Naturally gives her amazing voice another chance to shine. With the sound and structure of an old soul album, Jones’s second album rekindles the energy that has largely been lacking in modern R&B.
The squiggly funk of opener “How Do I Let a Good Man Down?” shoves us into the DeLorean and hits 88 mph. Though the hip-hop age is upon us, Jones’s music exists in a simpler time, back when guys could only “do you wrong,” instead of “deep dick some groupie bitches in the backseat of their hoo-ride.” The smoky “Stranded In Your Love,” a duet with soul veteran Lee Fields, starts off with a bit of back and forth between ex-lovers that would be relegated to a separate track as a skit (and certainly involve a hell of a lot more profanity) on most albums these days.
But that’s not what Jones is about. She’s here to release twenty years of pent-up soul, and she does a damn fine job of it. She channels James Brown on “Your Thing Is a Drag,” slip-sliding her way across the horn-heavy track. Her smoldering rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” restores the oft-omitted lyrics that give the song strength as an anthem for disenfranchised — and her powerful voice jackhammers the point home. The Dap-Kings provide a steady backdrop for Jones. (They also have terrific old-school names like “Binky Griptite” and “Bugaloo Velez.”) Dap-King Bosco Mann’s production hums with the cozy, reverb-heavy warmth of old vinyl, a fact that purists will no doubt appreciate.
Any R&B or soul fan that laments, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore,” can shut up now — because they do. But even though Naturally seems tailor-made for nostalgia junkies looking to dredge up a few old memories, that isn’t the point. What Jones and the Dap-Kings prove here is that heart and, yes, soul, are what make or break a record. An “old” style only becomes old when people forget what drove it in the first place. Thanks to Jones and a bit of chance, now we remember.