Since the release of their last album, the terrific 100 Days, 100 Nights, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings have enjoyed a major boost in their visibility, thanks to their contributions to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and the use of their tremendous cover of “This Land Is Your Land” in Up in the Air. Given their undeniable talent and dedication to their craft, it’s hard to begrudge the act their newfound high profile. It’s a shame, then, that their latest album, I Learned the Hard Way, finds the Dap-Kings and their incomparable frontwoman in something of a holding pattern.
As tracks like “The Game Gets Old,” “Window Shopping,” and the instrumental “The Reason” make clear, there isn’t another contemporary act so capable of recreating the balance of lived-in grittiness and slick professionalism of vintage R&B sides as Jones and the Dap-Kings. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that they’re the best R&B band to emerge since Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers. But Learned is the band’s fourth record, and they’ve already proven their unimpeachable chops repeatedly. Without doing anything new to challenge themselves or to push their style in any new directions, the album feels rote and predictable. Their retro fetish has grown stale.
Even if the album is stagnant from an artistic point of view, Jones and the Dap-Kings really do their damnedest to make it seem fresh. The topical “Money” and particularly the difficult, heady “She Ain’t No Child No More” give Jones the opportunity to wrap her formidable alto around material truly worthy of her voice. Even on lesser cuts, like the title track and “Better Things to Do,” there’s a real swagger to the performances that elevate the material. The Dap-Kings’s knack for punchy arrangements also helps in that regard, and most anyone for whom Learned is a proper introduction to Jones and the Dap-Kings will likely come away impressed.
While there’s something to be said for the band’s playing to its and Jones’s many strengths, there’s also something to be said for risk. There isn’t the first thing wrong with Learned, but it’s a record that Jones and The Dap-Kings could have recorded in their sleep. They may be better at this style than anyone and may fill a unique niche in the contemporary R&B market, but they’re going to have to start mixing it up a bit more if they want to be known for more than just mining simple nostalgia.