Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings cap a breakthrough year
Album review: Thanks to exposure via Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson records, the retro-soul group is rapidly selling out shows.
Gotta figure it's gonna be a very celebrative holiday season for the Dap-Kings and their soul belter Sharon Jones. Been a long time coming, too.
Jones, who turns 50 next year, has been Melinda Doolittle-ing her way through the R&B game since before that robbed "American Idol" finalist was born. Cutting her teeth as a backing vocalist in the '70s, returning to church singing when her style fell out of vogue in the '80s but persevering long enough to start acquiring a following by the retro-heavy '90s, the Georgia-born Jones finally hit her groove at the start of this decade when she teamed with Brooklyn's Dap-Kings, the eight-man house band for the independent label Daptone Records.
Together they have issued three albums of increasingly uncanny old-school funk 'n' soul: "Dap-Dippin' with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings" (2002), "Naturally" (2005) and their outstanding October release "100 Days, 100 Nights," which has garnered considerable critical acclaim here and abroad. Indeed, what accounts for such seemingly sudden enthusiasm is the Dap-Kings' good fortune across the Atlantic – where Jones is now known to many as the Queen of Funk – and, in particular, the reception the group has enjoyed in the U.K., where classic soul has never gone out of style.
So it was that a few years back the Dap-Kings' music found its way into the headphones of English producer Mark Ronson, who soon spotlighted the outfit on both Amy Winehouse's breakout album "Back to Black" and his own retrofitted-covers collection "Version," two of the most enjoyable listens to come along in a long while. (The Dap-Kings also added the horn parts to Ronson's recent remix of Dylan's "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine," in so obviously sharp a move it makes you wonder why Dylan never thought to do so in '66.)
Thanks to such exposure, which leaves "100 Days, 100 Nights" a bit like the third piece in a 2007 trilogy of soul, Jones and the Dap-Kings have never had a higher profile. They've already sold out Tuesday's show at L.A.'s El Rey Theatre and are rapidly approaching capacity for Sunday night's stop at the Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana.
It's a gig fans of the genre shouldn't miss, but the lively disc is an absolute must, especially for those who think no one makes 'em like they used to – those of us, that is, who love early Tina Turner and earlier Aretha Franklin and as much Carla Thomas and Bettye LaVette as we can get our hands on, and who lament that the best the new breed can cough up in that mold is Christina Aguilera's irrepressible "Ain't No Other Man" and a few good sides from Macy Gray and Nikka Costa.
Jones and the Dap-Kings, however, are derivative in the most satisfyingly re-inventive way. With its lean Stax funkiness perfectly matched to its fat-bottomed Motown warmth, "100 Days, 100 Nights" is a subtly astonishing listen, its patina of late-'60s/early-'70s authenticity so spot-on it could easily be mistaken for a lost gem from some forgotten studio's vaults.
Its 10 tracks are deeply pleasing, with such careful attention given to crucial details – how the bass lines slither, how the horn charts twist and bounce and harmonically surprise, how (above all) Jones' lived-in vocals ache and soothe in all the right places. She's "Nobody's Baby" at the outset, but by the time of "Let Them Knock" halfway in, she has devoted herself to one man, insisting he "Humble Me" two tunes after that. (By the finale, she's surviving, begging Jesus to "Answer Me.")
Every cut is shaped in the traditional R&B songwriting mold – succinct verses, infectious choruses, with unexpected swoops into minor-melancholy bridges followed by spirit-lifting key changes. At least three or four songs, including the title track and "Let Them Knock," are instant classics – and, most impressive, all but the closer were penned by the Dap-Kings themselves, bassist Bosco Mann chief writer. Music so adamantly retro has rarely sounded so fresh.