So much of what’s made Sharon Jones such an exceptional singer is, yes, her extremely affecting voice that you almost need to label as ‘vital’ because it’s so downright magnificent. But at the same time, her ability in being able to share stories about love and its many different situations with ease and grace is unrivaled. Much like Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes before her, she’s a woman filled with emotion and there is nothing stopping her in her spread of the word. Think of Hayes’ “Walk On By” and his crying, crooning voice and think of Jones singing “I learned the hard way, that your love is cruel” and it’s crystal clear why her and her backing Dap-King horns are leading the movement in modern soul.
They’re a stunning musical group with musicians that are, to be blunt, masters of their craft. Each one lends an overwhelming amount of passion and desire while Jones is on top of the hill, singing in full force about memories lost, days gone by, and everything else her heart has witnessed. And it suits them well that as musicians that have worked their entire career just to get noticed; for their newest album, I Learned the Hard Way, to be a beautiful representation of what real, honest and true soul music really is.
There’s no doubt that Jones is telling her own wounded stories where she’s overcome struggles that, naturally, we all encounter on a day-by-day basis. But, whether she’s overcoming a new hurdle or simply fighting the urge to go back, she’s the one in control. The horns swell beneath her, burning with a flourishing amount of superb tone and harmony. At times, it all sounds like a soaring choir, with every voice adding a new color to the amazing soundscape they’ve created. And on a purely personal level, this is an astounding album in terms of musicality, songwriting and sheer presence.
On opening listens, the music alone will send shivers down your body. There’s the stirring percussion and gelling strings on “Give it Back”, the funky bass and shimmering guitar on “Window Shopping”; the lyrics always have you coming back for more. Because, you see, even if you’re dancing your heart away with her to “Without a Heart”, you know that all that matters is that booming horn section, her tremendous backing singers and her perfectly positioned voice on top of everything like a calling to arms that will always be ready and able.
The variety will surely have a resounding effect on the album’s success because through stages of old Southern jazz romps, doo-wop ditties or even an Aretha Franklin-like stomp (“If You Call”) there is nothing but magic going on here. On their last effort, 100 Days, 100 Nights, Jones was a smoky-voiced wonder but on I Learned the Hard Way, she is obviously channeling Franklin’s candor; her demeanor, her absolute excellence. But for every new take on what soul should be, Jones leans on her horns to gorgeously deliver the highest of highs – this is special music that needs to be heard by all.
When you’ve got a set of musicians that are as talented, as gifted, and as brilliant as the Dap-Kings then you’re already off to a fantastic start. Now throw in a sultry, emotionally-charged, spectacular voice like that of Sharon Jones’ and, well, now you’re just playing with me. But what we have here is a group that has almost single-handedly charged forward to lead the movement in modern soul with affecting lyrics, immaculate musicianship and flawless compositions. I Learned the Hard Way is no different with enough of that essential power to carry you on, for as long as you’d like.