One of my favorite aspects of the film Purple Rain is the way it positions Prince and the Revolution in the opening scene as up-and-comers who are given 15 minutes to prove themselves on stage, to prospective fans and club management alike. By now, it seems anachronistic that bands actually have to win people over — by the time a “new” band comes around on tour, audience members have likely heard a few songs on MySpace, streamed a few tracks from blogs, read a few alt-weekly reviews, and have chosen to attend the concert because they have already been won over. This allows a lot of bands to maintain an insouciant, distant posture, as if they are doing the audience a favor by showing up to their own gig. So long as the act can more or less faithfully reproduce the sound of their recordings, and do so with something resembling enthusiasm (or not, if that’s part of their schtick), we call it a good show. In lieu of this, Purple Rain gives us The Kid who must turn around a bored and indifferent crowd in the space of five minutes if he hopes to ever play the club again — the music reflects this urgency, grabbing the listener by the collar, building and releasing tension, and putting on a show.
Thank goodness we still have Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings. No outfit working today is as muscular or as winning. Their last two albums, Naturally and 100 Days, 100 Nights, both received their fair share of praise upon release (the latter even sold over 150,000 copies), and their powerful reading of “This Land Is Your Land” was prominently featured in the opening credits of Oscar nominee Up In The Air; it’s safe to say the secret’s out. Their reputation as an electrifying and exuberant live act converges with my experience of seeing them perform, on a night when Jones followed up a sold-out club performance with an impromptu karaoke romp across the street where she absolutely devoured Aretha Franklin’s catalog.
The material they play is hardly groundbreaking or original: Jones and The Dap-Kings leave the “neo” behind and play straight-up soul. Do not confuse a lack of originality for a lack of creativity, because earnest, powerful 70s soul songs just happen to be something the world can never have too much of. That is not to suggest that the songs themselves are generic — not only do toe-tapping mid-tempo numbers like “Mama Don’t Like My Man,” “Better Things,” “Without A Heart,” and the title track sound like vintage Stax/Volt singles, they would rank among the best of them. Meanwhile, slow burners like opener “The Game Gets Old,” “Money,” “I’ll Still Be True,” and “Window Shopping” showcase Jones’ appreciable interpretive abilities as a vocalist. Her articulation, phrasing, and ornamentation are confident and varied, allowing her to sound powerful without being histrionic.
However, the real treat of I Learned The Hard Way is the maturation of Jones’ backing band The Dap-Kings, who match her authoritative readings with taut arrangements, outstanding contrapuntal work within the rhythm section, and lavish horn, organ, and string parts. No one-trick ponies, the Dap-Kings show a commanding versatility: handclaps and hi-hats on “Better Things” pop along blithely next to a piano, guitar, and lone trumpet with nary a kick/snare or bass to be heard, while vibes and bass weave a thick, solemn backdrop to Jones’ insistent vocals on “Money.” Instrumental “Reasons” is not just an interlude, but a real highlight on an album so defined by Jones’ voice.
For the few of you who have not already been won over, I Learned The Hard Way will make you a convert. For everyone else, the album excitingly perpetuates Jones’ reputation as one of soul’s all-time greats.