Someone Else’s Soundtrack
Daptone Records built their tower of soul power in Brooklyn, but they quietly draw an axis down through Augusta, Georgia, home to the true face of their company, Sharon Jones. The former prison guard has fronted three albums with the label’s house band The Dap-Kings, but album number four, I Learned the Hard Way, is a sobering reminder that you can’t spell “seriously funky” without “serious.”
Their prior collaborations were mostly upbeat affairs with occasional moments of introspection, a groove on Woody Guthrie’s politically charged “This Land is Your Land” interrupting spry numbers like “Got a Thing on My Mind” and “The Dap Dip.” This crew clearly invokes the blended joy, pain, and down-home catharsis in the voices and backing bands of old-school Tina Turner and fellow Augusta native James Brown. I Learned the Hard Way simply seems more downtrodden than usual.
Jones’ storytelling here addresses a significant lack of satisfaction with people (“Better Things to Do,” “Mama Don’t Like My Man”), situations (“The Game Gets Old,” “She Ain’t a Child No More”), and possessions (“Money”). While The Dap-Kings can cold rock a party, they seem almost hamstrung by these sad-sack lyrical subjects, especially in their horn section. Even the title track’s relatively punchy brass riff seems funereal when held up against the rest of their catalog.
There are still unified powerhouse moments in “Money” and “I’ll Still be True,” but beyond instrumental centerpiece “The Reason,” there’s precious little approaching happy on this album. Immediate parallels can be drawn between I Learned the Hard Way, the smoky, disaffected soul assembled on Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown soundtrack, and stripped-down versions of throwback James Bond movie themes. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings come awfully close to saying “I love you, baby, but it’ll never work out because you do bad things” a dozen different ways.
This isn’t to say that I Learned the Hard Way doesn’t stand alongside their prior efforts in funk and R&B revivalism; it certainly does. It’s just less of a celebration, and more regretful introspection regarding the hangover afterward.