The Divine Miss Sharon Jones was intentionally packaged as another long-lost funk relic rediscovered by wax archaeologists on her 2002 “debut”, Dap Dippin’ With the Dap-Kings; the cover depicted a youthful Jones in action, an image that belied the hard-working woman’s decades singing as a session musician and in her church choir. The categorization was deserved, considering the album’s conjuring of a past era and its proximity to the funk burners of 60s diva Marva Whitney. On her second release, Naturally, Jones still turns the beat around and channels Southern soul and funk of the ‘70s. However, she chooses wisely by avoiding another disc of revivalist funk jams, instead focusing on crafted, soulful songs. Jones still brings the heat as she sweats her way through each number, but she returns to the party with a set that provokes the heart, as well as the ass.
Naturally fidgets out of the funk bin by introducing new sounds and approaches to the art of nass-tay. Kicking off with “How Do I Let a Good Man Down?” Jones sounds refreshed as her reliable and capable band displays its burgeoning musical influences and abilities. The Dap-Kings lay down clip-clopping guitar, staccato horns, and a shuffling rhythm, all of which combine to form a funk mover that shares a salt lick, shot, and lime chaser with blood-brothers-at-the-brothel Antibalas. Jones never goes into the red, singing lithely but with a hard swing over the band’s bustling activity, thus exhibiting a refined and relaxed lead. “Natural Born Lover” follows, sounding like “Clean-Up Woman”‘s kid sister, as Jones plays sweet to Betty Wright’s sassy. The “He’s an NBL / And he TCBs” intro is a bit contrived, but the track is irresistible with its happy-go-licky, head-snapping beat rolling the song along and Miss Jones describing her au natural mate with glee. The soulful nature of the first five minutes of the album should not turn off funk purists altogether; listen to the crisp analog recording of Homer “Funky Foot” Jenkins’ bass drum and snare hits and let the saliva flow
Jones and her group still owe a considerable debt to past soul masters, but they are making withdrawals from a wider spectrum of accounts, diversifying their compositional portfolio. Peep the horn charts, where simple chromatic modulations elevate a song like the aforementioned “NBL” to a new plateau. Arrangements also play a notable role on the ballad, “Stranded in Your Love,” where Lee Fields plays Otis to Sharon’s Carla, albeit forty years later. Still bickering, still deeply in love with each other’s voices, the two are in fine form and take extended sections of the verses, shortening their takes successively, bringing them closer and closer until they are singing in unison over the choruses. All the while, the backing melds Willie Mitchell-like strings and horns, vibes that nod toward Motown, and one-of-a-kind Dap-swaggering rhythm. Listen for the plucked string outro at 0:23 that gently brings the song to a close. All are standard tricks from the book of rhythm and blues, but a little rearrangement makes the result as sly as ever.
Jones takes a novel approach to the soul/funk formula by opting for subtlety. “My Man Is a Mean Man” is a furious shuffler in the vein of “Give It Up or Turnit Loose”, but Jones keeps the track in check; where she would have played the punchy shouter on her first album, Sharon opts for elongated melodic lines that spotlight her supple and robust voice and, more important, keep the bullet train rhythm from running out of control. The result is not the explosion of rhythmic fury or vocal histrionics that the listener would expect. However, one must remember that the charismatic melismatic, such as Aretha or Mary J, is a rare find. And Jones is intelligent enough to play to her strengths, subjugating the backing with her depth of presence and control over the rhythm. That recognition alone makes her an extraordinary musician.
Oddly enough, the runaway hit of the album is the band’s slow-burning take on the Woody Guthrie classic, “This Land Is Your Land”. The band re-realizes the song as a sly and sneaky vamp, perfect for the late night set-closer. Admittedly, tracks like the huffing-and-puffing, Popcorn-style “Your Thing Is a Drag” and the lazy “Fish in My Dish” sound lackadaisical as follow-ups to the gully Guthrie groover.
Considering her time in the game, Jones does not have to prove anything, but being the consummate entertainer she continues to perform like her life depends on it. Thus, it is with a combination of knowing grace and colorful passion that she is seen on the cover, relaxed in a silky white dress and sinking into a bright red love seat. Like her own image, looking out the window, Sharon Jones continues to focus on what’s ahead, because it’s what comes natural.