I Learned the Hard Way is a tough album to critique. On one hand, it does exactly what it sets out to do: It’s sequenced, written and produced well; it’s filled with excellent arrangements, performances and slick musicianship; it’s got style, swing, everything.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings

I Learned the Hard Way
Daptone Records

And it’s boring for all the same reasons.

I Learned the Hard Way, like The Dap-Kings, is a curiosity. Led by Sharon Jones, The Dap-Kings is a tight, professional band with a compulsive desire to record songs that sound like lost soul classics, (or at least songs worth inclusion on a Peanut Butter Wolf compilation). Under the leadership of Jones, the band issued its first LP in 2002 on their own label, Daptone Records, which has since put out records by a smattering of similarly intentioned groups. Over the course of four albums, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’s music has evoked numerous black music touchstones of the last 50 years; JB-style funk, Philly, southern and northern soul, Stax-styled horns, Muscle Shoals, Motown, the list goes on. The Dap-Kings play as though hip hop and disco never happened.

This commitment in style wouldn’t make a difference if the tunes weren’t enjoyable. Luckily, I Learned the Hard Way has some of the group’s strongest work yet. With a sound more polished than ever, Way is crisper and more polite than The Dap-Kings’s previous albums. Every solo, echo and drum break is purposefully sequenced for maximum impact. Each call-and-response is tuned and timed to high heaven. Rumor has it every tool used by the Kings is vintage, and it’s not hard to believe.

“The Game Gets Old” opens the album with some blaxploitation horns before it drops into crisp Stax soul, leading smoothly into the schizophrenic “I Learned the Hard Way,” a song so tight you wish it would loosen up. The remaining 10 songs cover a lot of ground, from the eerily timely “Money” to the slinky doo-wop of “If You Call” and instrumental burner “The Reason.”

Third track “Better Things” is a clear highlight. Sounding like a lost Motown classic, with a bouncing, rhythmic guitar chug, handclaps and a little electric piano, Jones proclaims “I’m a better woman than I have been” and shouts “I got better things to do!” as a bass riff and horn section play cat and mouse. There is an ease to the band’s playing here, and great vocals by Jones ice the cake.

But when it comes down to it, there’s just a crucial lack of the most important thing of all on Way, and that’s soul. For all of the band’s immaculate play and arrangements, everything feels self-conscious and controlled. In all of the impressive saxophone, guitar and drum solos, there isn’t a single unhinged feeling of joy, or the illicit sensation of funk. Jones is a terrifically talented vocalist with great pipes and character, but the most appropriate word to describe her seems to be “flexible;” she can croon, wail and testify when the songs call for it, but seldom do you feel that she is truly letting it all go. Her voice is about as characteristic as the Kings’s tunes themselves: evocative, well-played and written, but ultimately trapped by the group’s aspirations.

I Learned the Hard Way is worth a listen for any soul fan, no doubt, but don’t expect anything game-changing. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings are talented, and a dynamite live act. Album-wise, the songs are good and occasionally great, but they’re not replacing The Payback anytime soon.

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