Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
US: 14 May 2002
UK: Available as import
I must admit to a certain unease about the whole funk revival scene. At the collecting end, it seems to have copied the worst of the northern soul “rarity for rarity’s sake” ethos. Influential funk DJ and Cratedigger Number One, Keb Darge is, significantly, an ex-Wigan Casino dancer. The zealous Japanese scene has taken up this aspect with some vigour. Still, Darge and the Japanese devotees do at least show a respect for the music. Elsewhere, I detect too much of a “studenty, white boys who really prefer rock music” odour for my liking. Hence, you have the bizarre phenomenon of the latter-day funk fan who hates soul music, conversations with whom are apt to be depressing. Even if one was to disregard all the above, there remains the awkward fact that revivalism is almost always condemned to be a failed attempt to retrieve a moment that is inevitably lost.
Still, from the early ‘90s there has been a recognisable global sub-culture dedicated to the preservation and attempted reincarnation of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s sounds. These are the ones that usually get subsumed under the shorthand term “James Brown” but in fact represent a great swathe of African-American music and countless forgotten groups and 45s. Formed in the wake of this interest, Desco was a favoured label for the new faithful and specialised in finding current bands that sounded like they’d been cryogenically frozen since some time around Wattstax. It was out of the ashes of Desco that Daptone was formed, bringing with them, from that label, the Dap Kings.
Given my suspicions, I was inclined to regard the Dap Kings as funk’s answer to Sha Na Na—great fun, too close to pastiche, and ultimately pointless. This, on listening to their first album, mostly made up of previously (if precariously) available singles, now seems not only harsh but blinkered and boneheaded. I am still not one hundred percent convinced by the band but Sharon Jones is the real thing. More importantly she is the real soulful thing.
The band plays it rough and raw, not as tight as the JBs of course, more like a barroom version circa 1968. OK though, especially after a beer or two. Organ and baritone sax deserve particular praise and the guitar chops out the chords with authentic urgency. Bass and drums seem a little leaden at times but all in all it is solid, no nonsense stuff with all the correct ingredients.
Then there is the material. Forget the deliberately anachronistic dance tune “The Dap Dip” and the silly Soul Review intro and outro and the rest is perfectly acceptable retro-funk. There are unexpected treats too. The re-working of Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately” is a stroke of genius, with its ‘60s arrangement and full-on vocals actually sounding less dated than the ‘80s original. All the other uptempo numbers are efficient if a little obvious, yet it is gratifying to see some social commentary deftly slipped into seemingly party-hard pieces such as “Got a Thing on My Mind”. Generally though it is the function of titles like “Give Me a Chance” and “Pick It Up, Lay It Down” to kick hard and evoke sweaty mid-‘60s clubs. This they do competently and affectionately.
Above all it is Sharon Jones’ voice that carries the day. Comparisons with Lyn Collins and Marva Whitney are inevitable but she does not really sound like them. Her style is more Southern and bluesy and she really does appear to come out of the vocal tradition that gave us Betty Lavette and Denise LaSalle. The blurb says that she hails from James Brown’s hometown Augusta, Georgia, which seems a little too good to be true. Whatever her background, she is a gifted bearer of a very proud torch.
The band slows down on one number, which allows Jones’ full powers to shine through. “Make It Good to Me” would fit into any ‘60s deep soul collection. It has the feel of Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away” and a very Memphis arrangement. Jones brings to the lyrics the right mixture of anguish and sensuality. A modern-old classic. The arrangement on the funkier “Ain’t It Hard” is only adequate, but Jones gives this tough slice of social critique real edge and conviction. The song deals with hard times, ghetto violence, and poverty and puts some of the current celebrations of that world to shame. Both these cuts manage to transcend the “revivalist” trappings and stand as statements in their own right.
I still think the group are doomed to the campus circuit and the odd blues festival but now hope I’m wrong. I also hope in future that they squeeze out the parodic elements (this music is fun enough without any force-feeding) and develop a more varied palette. As for Sharon Jones, I’d like to hear what she sounds like with more contemporary arrangements. For now, this is a better album than I had expected and will please anyone who laments the loss of fatback drums, funky organ fills, and muscular vocals. If the phrase “Sock it to me, Baby” causes you anything other than complete bewilderment then Dap-Dippin may just be what you have been missing.