As darlings of vintage-music buffs and record collectors since the band's 2002 debut, Dap Dippin' with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Sharon Jones and her backing ensemble cultivated a passionate fan base thanks to an authentic take on the sounds of Memphis soul and '70s funk. Vocalist Jones, a Georgia-born powerhouse who dominates any stage at a compact 4'11", conjures thoughts of Mahalia, of Tina, of Marva and Mavis. Her brassy delivery easily puts her in the company of such soul queens of the past.
Over the past three albums, bassist Bosco Mann has served as the main songwriter for the Dap-Kings, and his strong rhythmic leanings have filtered raw Southern soul, primal funk and a little bit of Afrobeat into every track. With I Learned the Hard Way, the group's fourth and newest album, the songwriting opened up to all members of the band. This democratization may explain the cleaner and classier sound, borrowing from the lush arrangements and smoother sheen of '60s Motown. The group hasn't lost its raw, JB's-inspired edge, though. If anything, the poppier elements of the tunes put the Dap-Kings' versatility on full display. Dave Guy's trumpet solo on "Better Things" is a knockout, for instance, and the disc's sinewy, sultry title track puts the Dap-Kings up there with such backing legends as the Funk Brothers or the MG's. It'll be interesting to explore the band's next album: Will they be able to synthesize different styles, or will the songwriting remain so catholic?
And while that reliable versatility is a hallmark of the NYC-based band – which has backed acts as disparate as Amy Winehouse and Michael Bublé – the Dap-Kings rarely slip into wedding-band anonymity. The group is clearly in the thrall of the past, but Jones' lyrics are more wistful and worn-down, and a little more sophisticated than the predictable where-can-my-baby-bes. One thing I Learned the Hard Way desperately lacks, however, is a free ticket to a show packaged with the album, as that remains the best way to experience the Dap-Kings in full fiery form.