A few scattered facts, to begin with: Sharon Jones was born in Augusta, Georgia, the same town as James Brown, in 1956, and before her steady, relatively recent rise to Soul music prominence, she made her living doing sporadic session work as an incognito background vocalist and singing in wedding bands, work supplemented at times by day jobs including a stretch as a prison guard at New York’s Riker’s Island and a stint as an armored car guard for Wells Fargo. She has been working with the Dap-Kings since 2002’s Dap-dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, though previous to that she had released head-turning singles with the Soul Providers, members of which went on to form the Dap-Kings. This year the Dap-Kings themselves have gotten a lot of attention, primarily for working with producer Mark Ronson on his album Version and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black (they were the backing band on six tracks, including “Rehab,” and her first U.S. tour).
More than anything else, what Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings excel at is embodying the inexpressible qualities that make Soul music so singularly great, that something else that makes so many classic Soul tracks ageless. They can take things to a funky extreme or slow-it down, allowing Jones to play the part of the wary, stricken lover (on “100 Days, 100 Nights,” for example), or deliver plaintive, heavily gospel-tinged performances (especially on “Humble Me” and “Answer Me”). The Dap-Kings write the songs with her in mind and are apt at bringing her talent out to its broad, full potential. Their arrangements are consistently engaging, making use of all the classic moves and sliding surprising twists into the time-tested structures and traditions to which they adhere. The sophistication and wit of their compositions are grounded in a deep affection for the lineage of classical rhythm and blues.
In the role of the jilted lover coming to terms with betrayal, Sharon Jones again and again shows herself capable of inhabiting the shoes of those that have come before, escaping cliché and getting to the heart of the stories she portrays. On “Nobody’s Baby” she is archly defiant, both funny and impressive in her manifested strength. The song starts off with a supremely cool bassline, the undeniable kind, the kind that starts every head in the room nodding, satisfied to groove and shake in its shadow. “I ain’t nobody’s soldier/ I’m a bona fide captain,” she proclaims, tongue-in-cheek and deadly serious at the same time. Jones has perfected the art of singing a line in a way that pushes it far beyond the simple meaning of the words themselves. In a lot of cases, the music acts similarly, inherently fun and danceable, it also suggests a depth of emotion and experience to which it is an invitation. Then again, the group has proved themselves more than capable of writing perfectly straightforward love songs which are surprisingly invulnerable to the pitfalls of the well-charted terrain they traverse.
“All Over Again” was the closing song on Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ previous album, 2005’s Naturally. It was the first song I heard by them—it was part of the first Soul Sides compilation compiled by Oliver Wang—and situated as it was at the backend of a set of classic soul rarities, I took it to be one itself. Eventually, I found out the case was other. In any case, it is the kind of song that immediately suggests itself as perfectly suited—in a completely attractive way—to being played as a newly married couple dances their first dance as such. It’s the kind of song you want someone to write about you, to sing to you. The same could be said about “Let Them Knock,” but the desire is of a different, distinctly more sexual, nature. A lot of people have gravitated to Sharon Jones this year, specifically, many people that listen to a lot of indie rock. This song is a good indicator of why. It manages to evade the pervading politeness that is guiding all too many bands and it does so in a way that is suggestive without being overtly provocative, in a way style that says what it says and a great deal more.
Mavis Staples – We’ll Never Turn Back
Lyn Collins – Think (About It)
Curtis Mayfield – Curtis