They just don’t make soul like they used to… they make it even better now. On I Learned the Hard Way, Sharon Jones firmly reminds the listener that she is, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the reigning queen of the modern soul revival. Daptone Records is at the forefront of that revival, and hell, you could even argue that they started it, not just with Jones, but with their entire stable of talented artists and reissues of rare, forgotten soul gems. With the extreme instrumental command of the Dap-Kings behind her, Sharon Jones is as much of a saleswoman as she is a soul singer, selling every single word, mood and emotion to listeners and making them believe every second of it. Jones has one of those vocal styles that instantly breathes life into her words, sharing her deepest joys, her frustrations, her playfulness and even her anger depending on the song. Her lyrical themes have typically always been, and still are, love, love lost, and everyday problems, which is probably why her music strikes such a strong chord with so many different types of people.
One notable difference from previous efforts is the prominent use of background vocalists, bringing even more depth and authenticity to already catchy tunes like the opening “The Game Gets Old,” the stunning title track, and the shuffling doo-wop of “Without a Heart.” The ever impressive Dap-Kings seem to have stepped things up a notch yet again with tighter playing and even better arrangements than before. The hallmark of a truly great band is the ability to know precisely when to hold back and keep it minimal, and when to simply let it all hang out and bring it home, and the Kings’ do so with a natural effortlessness beyond their years. A prime example is the band’s subtly tender snap, crackle and pop while Sharon gets all tough girl on us on “Better Things.”
Whether she’s screamin’, moanin’ and laying it down on the killer “Give it Back,” or giving a glimpse of her more vulnerable side on the the heart-wrenching “If You Call,” Jones’ vocals grab a hold of your heart and don’t let go. The dirty funky “Money” will instantly resonate with anyone born without a silver spoon in their mouth, and will easily get the coolest ‘I don’t dance’ tough guy jumping out of his seat, arms raised, screaming along “Money! Where have you gone to?!” With more and more mainstream media attention coming their way all the time, and a tight, fresh, well-promoted album like this behind them, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are poised for their greatest success so far, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving group.