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Showing posts with label Daptone Records. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Daptone Records. Show all posts

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Unintentionally Post-Modern Soul Of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings

It would be easy to dismiss Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings as an exercise in nostalgia, but that would be a mistake. Sure, there's an obsessive dedication to capturing the sonic elements of classic soul records; the horn arrangements, microphone placements, drum sounds, vintage gear, etc., but it's clear that Jones and producer and Daptone Records head Gabriel Roth are committed to classic soul as an ongoing concern as opposed to being mere preservationists. Whether it's simply a matter of aesthetic preference or a greater desire to return to a musical Eden, in their minds at least, it's all about the authenticity.

But there's an unwritten rule in music that if you're going to work in a well worn genre without expanding its boundaries, you have to have great songs and a great singer, and unfortunately, with their new album, I Learned The Hard Way, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings have proven once more that they are in possession of neither.

Like their previous albums, I Learned The Hard Way is an amalgam of late 60's and early 70's soul stylings. There's hints of Stax, late 60's Chess Records soul and early Philadelphia International. And once again, the precision with which producer Gabriel Roth captures the sound is impressive, but only impressive in the way a tribute band impresses - you're impressed in the moment with the meticulousness of the re-creation, but ultimately, it rings hollow.

None of the above would matter if the songs were great, but there isn't a great song here. Occasionally good, yes, but more often sounding like a paint-by-numbers home soul kit, like the cliched track about a lover with a wondering eye, "Window Shopping." The sentiment of "Money" may be absolutely true, but the track itself sounds silly, and it'll only make you run to your stereo to put the O'Jays "For The Love Of Money" on. Perhaps the songs could transcend the mediocre if Jones could become a singer who makes the listener actually feel something (the whole damn point of Soul music), but she merely sounds like a soul singer - she doesn't sing particularly soulfully. If you put her on any Stax compilation, she'd be a second or third tier presence at best.

What works about Jones is her story; the persistence, the dedication, her partnership with the Dap-Kings and her current success. And it is a great story. I'm happy for her; she's busted her ass. But while her music may be a soul experience, it's never a true experience of soul.

And it's ironic given their soul roots, but what Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings have unintentionally created is the ultimate expression of post-modernism; the stylistic form of the music is their content, instead of the emotional expression within the songs themselves. That has won them a career and much goodwill, but it will never have them matter, and great soul music, no matter the decade, always matters.



Monday, December 08, 2008

Thoughts On Gabriel Roth And Daptone Records

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine had a huge piece on Gabriel Roth and his Daptone Records label. I came away from reading the piece with an immense amount of respect for the amount of hard work Roth has put in to realize his vision – and a deeper understanding on why I don’t care much about the music he puts out.

Roth is a sonic fetishist, a purist, claiming that he “doesn’t like anything made after 1974.” And in his insistence on using vintage equipment, etc., he’s done a fine job of replicating the sounds of long lost soul and funk singles. But unfortunately, much of his music is only that – a replication. (Ironically, the exception to this is the Dap-Kings work with Amy Winehouse, but that was helmed by a producer who loves soul, but lives in the modern world - Mark Ronson.) In Sharon Jones especially, I hear nothing that makes her music resonate the way great soul does. Is it enjoyable as a sonic experience that approximates soul music? Sure. Does it do what soul really does at its best - raise your spirit, make you hope, dream and feel like you're dwelling in a world of possibility? Not on your life.

In fetishizing the sonics of soul, Roth has reversed the importance of the ingredients of soul – it’s not about a drum sound or a horn tone, it’s about a feeling, a feeling of emotional vulnerability and authenticity. (Roth thinks that it's about a feeling sonic authenticity first.) And when I listen to the music on Daptone Records, I get a cool vibe, the vibe of the hipster purist who has very impressively made his own way, but I don’t get the feeling, the feeling that James Brown once sang about – and that I look to music for, no matter what the genre.

Gabriel Roth may be a purist, but until he figures out that musical purity is a bore and a dead end, the music of Daptone Records will only be marginal, and only marginally enjoyable.

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