This review was originally published at antiquiet.com. You can read it in its original form here.
Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings – Give the People What They Want
It’s odd to think of an act as retro-minded as Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings as evolving, but that’s exactly what this band has been doing over the past 10 years. Their first album was a collection of screamin’ soul booty shakers, heavy on groove but light on songs. Fast forward to 2010’s I Learned The Hard Way, and this band is writing songs that stand head and shoulders with the source material they so joyously make their own. Give The People What They Want is a worthy addition to possibly the strongest catalog of modern day soul today, a record that boasts a sharper songwriting acumen and continuously inventive arrangements. They may not be pushing boundaries but what they do they do damn well, and when it comes to making music that hits the gut and the hips, that’s what matters most.
Stranger To My Happiness may be the best distillation yet of what this group does right. Opening with a swaying horn riff countered with a walking single note guitar line, the way is cleared for Sharon’s barn burning vocals. The delivery is what sets Sharon apart from her many counterparts. Stranger To My Happiness isn’t an outpouring of love or wallowing in despair, extremes that lesser singers happily mine for oversinging. This song instead inhabits the messy middle that makes up life. When she declares she’s the stranger, it’s neither joy nor sorrow, it’s resolve, determination, and acceptance, the nuances of the performance turning what could have been an exercise in woe-is-me drudgery into a hesitant yet joyous rumination on being uncomfortable with happiness.
Elsewhere, Retreat! is a possibly tongue-in-cheek stomp warding off suitors while We Get Along is half love song, half political call to harmonious arms backed by a slinky back beat. You’ll Be Lonely brings the brass section, twisting from a jazzy solo turn to Beatles-esque fanfare to Muscle Shoals strut. Long Time, Wrong Time sounds like it could be Motown returning the favor and covering Creedence Clearwater Revival, which is as glorious and convoluted as it might sound.
Ironically though, the song that anchors Give The People What They Want is People Don’t Get What They Deserve. Especially poignant after Sharon’s cancer diagnosis (and the triumphant battle that delayed the record’s release) the track is a silky screed, balancing incisive acrimony with an indelible xylophone melody. Sharon attacks the song with her usual gusto, pushing over platitudes and describing the “man who was born with a fortune / a hard day’s work he’s never known.” The real star here though (and the secret weapon of much of the album) is the Dapettes providing harmony. The backup singers respond to Sharon’s every line as they chide, goad, and swoon before hitting the chorus where they lay down the hammer of the law with menacing authority. “People! Don’t. Get. What. They. Deserve!”
It’s hard not to see that in the context of her own health issues. But she’s persevered, and though the record was written before such hardship, it’s easy to see the personality in the songs that made that possible. At the core of great soul music is that sense of fortitude and resilience. That even at our lowest, there’s a communal catharsis around the corner for those that don’t give in. The music of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings can feel tied to a certain time and sound, but the core of what they make is timeless. As long as the sounds they make still move people, there’s going to be a place for this kind of music.
This review is something of a Look Back, where I feel compelled to write reviews for albums long past their prime buzz period. Mostly because I’m a slouch who’s missed out on countless great records, but at least partly because the deluge of music made available makes keeping up with everything virtually impossible. The Look Back is a chance to shed some well deserved light on albums that flew under my radar.
Call Me Lightning – Soft Skeletons
I am two and a half songs into my first ever listen of Call Me Lightning’s Soft Skeletons and I’m overtaken with a familiar feeling. Instead of some flowery prose on how it feels I’ll give it you my current gist succinctly, “Holy fuck this is awesome.” And for some reason, instead of leaning back, turning up the volume a couple of notches and basking in the all out punk glory that is this record, I feel compelled to try something new: an in-progress-record-review. First, a summary of how we got to be two and a half (now three, I suppose) songs into this record.
We started with “Meet the Skeletons”, a pulsing back beat with a descending riffage gradually building tension. The song offers no release though, that’s what track two is for. “Billion Eyes” followed. I listened twice. It comes in a bluster, furiously grooves, slides out with energy high. “Bottles and Bottles” charged out of the headphones and into my fragile mind next and halfway through this song I feel it necessary to comment. So here we are.
You could argue, and I’d agree, that reviewing a record while listening is foolish, unfair to the artist, and that if I’m writing about the music, I couldn’t possibly be giving it the full attention necessary to have an informed and trenchant opinion on it. That this is an exercise in misguided exuberance. And you, faithful, hypothetical reader, would be right. But seeing as I have already set about writing about rock music, I would argue that my guide isn’t well calibrated to begin with, and seeing as I have now spent roughly two songs justifying this exercise it’s time to get to it.
Call Me Lightning are a rock (you could call them some flavor of punk if you’d prefer) band from Milwaukee. They make music that inspires either boisterous moshing or vigorous head bobbing while considering your existential insignificance, depending on the individual. Soft Skeletons is the kind of album that inspires speeding tickets, enthusiastic beer drinking, and vaguely drunken post-midnight conversations on the nature of fucking up and the universe at large. Drum fills punctuate just about every rousing chorus, spidery guitar figures meld with straight ahead hard charging riffs, the bass lines punch through the mess and accomplish the exceedingly tricky feat of buoying the rhythm section while melodically filling out the arrangement. And then the vocals. All manic energy and joyful desperation, the sound of someone on the brink of their grip on life lost in the catharsis that is the glorious noise this band makes. I am now on “Shook House Shakedown”, a distillation of what they are doing so well. The repetitive guitar riff marches with mechanical precision, the rhythm section is a drunken war elephant pushing ahead in a violent tumble, each beat recovering it’s stance before stumbling yet again. The bridge is all menacing bass drive punctuated with the singer’s last breaths of sanity.
Sometimes catharsis comes in the skyward release of sing-alongs, harmonies, and ostentatiously important lyrics. Often times more appealingly, rock and roll can give us release through the reckless abandon, boundless energy, and manic reveries this album provides. Not often do bands capture that feeling so well, but with Soft Skeletons, Call Me Lightning have done just that.