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Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - 100 Days, 100 Nights Print E-mail
Friday, 01 February 2008
ImageAs much as I love the traditional forms of country, blues and bluegrass, even I have to admit that all three are moribund franchises at this point. Sure, you still have folks like Dwight Yoakam, Del McCoury and Buddy Guy who are more or less holding up the conventions of their respective traditions, but they are increasingly being relegated to novelty status, artists who preside over lonely musical estates like curators of immaculately preserved but rarely visited museums. But of all the traditional forms, it’s possible that soul music has held up the best, with first generation artists such as Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin, and Etta James still performing a variant (albeit often more polished) of the deeply spiritual sounds that originally came roaring out of Southern churches as a secular answer to the fervor of gospel music. But even soul music has become significantly less soulful over the years, with oversexed white boys and Top 40 divas retaining the vocal theatrics while losing much of the brokenhearted substance of the music. And while musical Reformations tend to end up codifying genres into rigid formulas, it’s refreshing to hear Sharon Jones, a powerhouse vocalist who offers a compelling reminder of just how powerful soul music can be when stripped to its essentials.

Despite a pedigree stretching back to her roots in Augusta, Georgia, Sharon Jones has not followed the usual trajectory to becoming arguably her field’s leading proprietor of traditional soul music. Her darkly wounded baritone and sensual swagger earned her attention in the early 1970s, when she did some high-profile backing singing under the name of Lafaye Jones, but her career proved short-lived. Eventually, the work dried up altogether, and she disappeared into years of odd jobs as a corrections officer and armored car guard before reemerging in the mid-1990s as a backup singer for funk artist Lee Fields. Like the pre-WWII country blues artists who were rediscovered during the folk revival of the late 1950s, Jones has proven that her second life as an artist will be her moment to shine. In the process, she proves that soul music is far from dead.
Again joined by her backup band, the peerless Dap-Kings (also largely responsible for the soulful sounds of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black), 100 Days, 100 Nights is a masterful study in old school soul. Her third full-length release since her reemergence, Jones makes her most eclectic and fully realized album, an album that ranks among the very best to come out of that tradition in the last 30 years. Most of this is due to the arrangements created by the Dap-Kings, an impeccably tight eight member band from Brooklyn who turns out a seemingly endless barrage of swaggering horn lines, reverb-drenched guitar lines and gospel-tinged piano fills. No synths, no drum loops, no auto-pitch vocals – this the real deal, an album that could have been made 40 years ago without sounding one bit different.

Though Jones doesn’t have the vocal range of Aretha Franklin or Erykah Badu, she more than makes up for it with the feeling and emotion she brings to each performance. Like Otis Redding, her voice is a tangibly expressive instrument, one that is perfectly suited for the songs of heartbreak and disappointment that comprise these 10 tracks. Wounded yet empowered like Etta James, everything she does is loaded with sentiment and sexual innuendo, whether desperately pleading for her comeuppance on “Humble Me” or warning a lover his “crafty little pencil is running out of lead” on “When the Other Foot Drops, Uncle.” Still, Redding may very well be the most obvious touchstone in her work, with the bubbling bass line and descending lead guitar runs of “Nobody’s Baby” and the swooning saxophones and prancing piano of “Let Them Knock” demonstrating that the inherent sadness in her voice cuts through what superficially seem like upbeat arrangements.

Even though Jones’ brassy baritone is amazingly well-suited for the more gritty textures, she does similarly well with lighter, more pop-minded approaches. Sounding like an early Stevie Wonder track, the tinkling vibes and pensive guitar lines of “Tell Me” carefully recreate the spirit of classic Motown singles. Similarly, the sighing strings and sophisticated tone of “Something’s Changed” bring to mind the girl groups of the era, with Jones offering a lead vocal with more brokenhearted anguish than anything in Diana Ross’ entire catalog. Even so, Jones is at her best when taking some liberties with the forms she so obviously knows inside and out.

Case in point, the title track evolves from a sturdy bedding of barking horns, staccato guitar riffs and multipart backing harmonies before shifting into an entirely different gear at its halfway point, slowing down and straightening out into a Ray Charles groove. Just as imaginative is “Answer Me,” a track that makes clear soul music’s debt to Southern gospel by blending the sacred and carnal together with Jones’ desperate pleas to God to send a man who won’t disappoint her in the end. And while she doesn’t take too many liberties with the sounds of classic soul music, such moments provide evidence that Jones might just be able to create some interesting stylistic hybrids in the future.

Ultimately, some artists are innovators and some are simply gifted with talents that best suit them for exploring already-chartered conceptual territory. Though Sharon Jones is clearly an echo of an earlier sound, the range of her skills (and that of the Dap-Kings) allows her to escape being pigeonholed in any narrow sense. Bridging the gap from Ray Charles and Etta James through Motown and Stax soul, Jones and the Dap-Kings are more of a living repository of the constantly shifting dynamics of pre-1970 R&B than any sort of modern update to that ethos. Whether or not Jones and the Dap-Kings ever decide to do any substantial tinkering with the formulas they’ve mastered is unclear. What’s certain is that they’re talented enough to make sure that soul music survives for at least as long as they do.

Vintage and timeless down to the tiniest detail, there is nothing about 100 Days, 100 Nights that has even the slightest hint of modern recording techniques. Sonically rich and texturally dry, the arrangements balance the horns, guitars and organs into one sensual groove, creating something that sounds great coming out of high-end equipment in glorious layers, or bleating out of cheap ear buds. This is an album whose perfect arrangements and spirited performances simply cannot sound bad.

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