The title of the fifth album from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings is Give the People What They Want, which is an ethos I don’t believe an artist should believe in. And I don’t think singer Jones, a gutsy and standup type, has much truck with it either.
The Brooklyn band’s first album (2002’s Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings) was all James Brown revival-funk. It had a retro style beyond the sharp grooves, what with its old-school album-art presentation and a track – Dap Dip – that threw back to a dance craze that could have been but never was.
Now hear Retreat!, the first cut to the excellent, crisply produced new album. It arrives with refined bells and graceful embellishments from backup singers in gowns, long gloves and a Supremes state of mind. It is down-right cinematic (if not “automatic, systematic – full of colour, self-contained,” to quote former Motown prodigy Michael Jackson).
And look at the album cover this time around: artful, with metaphorical imagery and steps leading to clouds. This is ascension. This is progress. This is arrival.
So, give the people what they want? No, this is dignified soul music. Jones takes what she wants and gives what she needs to give, with the audience coming away with a smile on its lips.
Then again, what this LP represents is an idea up for grabs. Some will see it as Jones’s post-cancer comeback album, but they should not; as far as I know the material (which she did not write) was recorded before she learned of her curable bile-duct tumour last summer. The album’s release date was pushed back; a tour was postponed.
After the dynamic, timpani-rolling boldness of the opening track (“I come in blazing,” Jones sings, like a demonic Diana Ross), the next-up Stranger to My Happiness struts its saxophones and is lively despite its tale of repeat romantic misery. This is not sadness; this is release – the listener is moved.
Quick take: The three-voiced Dapettes play a larger role here, adding sophistication (and often charismatic sass) to the package.
Quick take No. 2: Slow Down, Love is as silky a ballad as we’ve heard yet from Jones and her Dap royalty.
Previously, Jones’s choice of material, often the product of Dap-King bassist and bandleader Bosco Mann, usually resonated with personal association. Pieces such as My Man is a Mean Man (off 2005’s Naturally) are in the egocentric blues tradition. Occasionally, however, the tunes reflected a bigger picture: There was the audacious cover of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land and from 2011’s Soul Time!, the socio-architectural observation Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects and the anarchy-posing What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes?
The commentary continues here with a groovy call for harmony (We Get Along) and the upbeat, horn-happy People Don’t Get What They Deserve, a criticism of privilege and the unfair distribution of wealth (“money don’t follow sweat”).
That people don’t get what they deserve is not a new notion. You know it and I know it, and so too does George Clinton. The Funkmaster General once said, “funk is its own reward.” That ain’t no jive, and neither are Jones and the Dap-Kings. We want them, we need them, we got them. Whether we are worthy of them is another question.