Comic and actor Patton Oswalt once paraphrased Roger Ebert's assessment of good films as, "It's not what it's about, it's how it's about it." The same principle applies to all art, as it is not a particular subject matter that becomes redundant, but rather the treatment of that subject that can become tired. After all, who's still up for songs about love and heartbreak? I know I am.
Whether knowingly or not, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings have been exploring this question for the past decade. When the group released its first record, Dap Dippin'..., in 2001, the band fit in with the small but comfortable niche of retro-soul acts. However, while most acts became known for reproducing funky breaks or vintage sounds, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings honed their songwriting and performance chops. The group quickly built a reputation within this circle but soon outgrew it. Since then they have appeared on network television and played at larger venues and festivals -- even at the historic Apollo Theater. Bandleader and producer Gabe "Bosco Mann" Roth and the band also gained mainstream exposure by playing with the Grammy Award-winning Amy Winehouse and on the American Gangster soundtrack. Yet considering the direction of contemporary pop music, Jones and company will always be a niche. So how can a group with one foot perennially in the past grow? The band's fourth album, I Learned The Hard Way, answers the question simply: by honing its craft.
I Learned The Hard Way continues the group's transformation from retro preservationists to master soul craftspeople. The barn-storming, soul-revue jams of their debut have become more nuanced syntheses of different soul styles. As the title suggests, the album adheres to a hallmark subject matter of the form: aches and break-ups. However, each song touches on more than familiar retro buzz words, like "Muscle Shoals" or "Stax."
The album opens with "The Game Gets Old," a wonderful slice of Philadelphia International, AM soul. Channeling Crooklyn by way of Gamble & Huff, the band layers in strings, a xylophone and flute that add wonderfully warm touches to this ode to getting over. By the second song, the dramatic title track, the album's signature quality becomes clear: clever use of different harmonic styles and arrangements within a single song. "I Learned The Hard Way" thus moves seamlessly through a bluesy hook, jazzy breakdowns, and gospel-inflected soulful verses by being strung together with spine-tingling background responses and choice amounts of strings. And longtime fans need not fear because the group retains some funk, albeit more along the lines of the Cosby-paced two-step from 2007's 100 Days, 100 Nights. Young'ns, don't let this tempo give you the slip: Jones's refined voice and the humidity of the band's playing on "Better Things To Do" makes the first album's comparatively punk rock pace almost unbearable now.
Jones deserves special credit for treating her subject matter consistently and with an even hand throughout I Learned The Hard Way. She can express both hurt and her trademark, take-no-shit defiance, such as on "Give It Back." Then she easily switches to a specially aged and distilled form of frustration on "Window Shopping," which finds the 53-year-old Jones growing tired of her man's same-ol'-same-ol' ("You browse around with no intent to buy"). Almost like a counterpoint to the grow-old-together anthem "All Over Again" from 2005's Naturally, Jones sounds genuine in her loss of that loving feeling. Yet the song still sounds buoyant thanks to the arrangement's beautiful hybrid of Northeastern balladry and Memphis rhythms.
The album closes on a relatively positive note as Jones shares a glimmer of hope. "Without A Heart" is that good, Christian reminder to put nothing but goodness in the world while recalling the skipping-down-the-Yellow-Brick-Road quality of The Wiz(ard of Oz). The only unusual part of the album is the closing "Mama Don't Like My Man." No fault to the song itself, which is an early-Smokey-style swinger about parental disapproval. The circular nature of teen angst coming back full circle in middle-age is a wonderfully humorous image and could actually prompt another album. However, perhaps that is where this song belongs -- on another album. Onward to album number five, then!
On their fourth album, I Learned the Hard Way, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings do not veer far from the format that established them as the premier 21st century soul outfit, but continue to journey deeper into their sound and their influences. Calling to mind the looseness and verve of Stax and the Muscle Shoals sound, the record is meant as a testament to the kind of exhilaration and poignancy that only music can open onto. With Sharon Jones, as always, the emphatic and explosive center of proceedings, the band traverses the ground between the raw gut-punch of rhythm and blues and the laid-back cool of a soulful groove.