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Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - I Learned the Hard Way

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Artist: Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings

Album: I Learned the Hard Way

Label: Daptone

Review date: Apr. 14, 2010

A few short days after the passing of the great James Brown, Sharon Jones took the stage at Chicago’s Park West and declared herself the Godfather of Soul. "I’m from Augusta, Georgia," she testified before launching into a ferocious medley of hits by the hardest working man in show business. "I’m James Brown."

In fact, Jones spent her childhood in Georgia studying Brown in his prime, while her Brooklyn-based band, the Dap-Kings (whose name is a combination of a legendary deep funk band and label) formed out of a love for the King of Funk. But I Learned the Hard Way, the group’s fourth full-length on Daptone, won’t earn either of them JB comparisons — and that’s a good thing. Jones’ talents have long since surpassed mere impersonation, while the Dap-Kings, perhaps encouraged by their success backing the more Motown-flavored Amy Winehouse, have expanded their repertoire to include strands of Detroit, Philly and Muscle Shoals.

Opening with a dramatic fanfare reminiscent of something on Philly International, "The Game Gets Old" is sweeter and more subtle than anything Jones has sung to date, the addition of swelling strings and sighing backing vocals accentuating rather than detracting from its potency. Yet more surprises await as the album progresses: the title track, powered by a tense trombone hook and a righteous chorus; the mellow, Brenton Wood-ish "Better Things"; and the Northern Soul shuffle of "She Ain’t A Child No More." Jones navigates each change of mood and pace without ever sounding forced or stretched, revealing hitherto unseen versatility in her technical and emotional range.

Even when the Dap-Kings fall back on their old tricks — winking ballads with cute lyrics such as "Window Shopping", and the slow burners ("Without a Heart") that dominated the group’s previous efforts — the results are more enjoyable, thanks to tighter songwriting and Bosco Mann’s snappy production.

In short, I Learned the Hard Way is the sound of a revival band revived, stepping out of the shadows of its idols while remaining true to the essence of its form. And by outgrowing her dream of being the next James Brown, Jones just might inspire some kid in Augusta, Georgia — or Brooklyn — to try to be the next Sharon Jones.

By Nick Cuce'

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