More Gut Bucket Soul from Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
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.