Claiming her retro-soul crown
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings “100 Days, 100 Nights” (Daptone)
* * * ½
Since forming in 2000, New York’s Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have built a loyal niche following with their retro-soul sound. Based on funk and R&B; styles from the 1960s and ‘70s, retro soul, like Jones’ group itself, has largely stayed off the mainstream radar. Yet, for Jones and the Dap-Kings’ third album, “100 Days, 100 Nights,” they’ve enjoyed unprecedented attention, including high-profile features in magazines and on MTV. This new spotlight has an unlikely source: “rival” Amy Winehouse.
The Jones-Winehouse tussle is even less real than 50 Cent and Kanye West’s recent, over-dramatized beef. There’s been almost no direct jousting between the two women, yet fans and the media happily whip the flames for them. Ostensibly, the issue centers on how Winehouse recruited (read: “stole”) the Dap-Kings as her studio and touring band for her multi-platinum, retro-soul-infused “Back to Black” album. The actual source of tension, barely veiled, is a familiar debate that revolves around youth, image and, most of all, race.
Winehouse is white, twentysomething, waif-ish and a tabloid train wreck. Jones is black, fortysomething, full-figured and has no rehab history (she’s a former corrections officer). Her last album with the Dap-Kings, “Naturally,” has sold 50,000 units over two years; Winehouse’s “Back to Black” sold the same amount in the first week of its U.S. release, back in March. These disparities stir up old tensions that compare black “innovators,” white “imitators” and their contrasting fortunes.
But casting Winehouse as a modern-day Janis Joplin to Jones’ Big Mama Thornton is too easy a jab. The racial dynamics of retro soul have always been complicated: Most bands pair young, white, American and European musicians with older black vocalists -- Jones and the Dap-Kings, Finland’s Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators, Britain’s Quantic Soul Orchestra and Spanky Wilson. In a sense, these bands nod to an earlier era of Southern soul studios such as Stax and Fame, where many a black singer -- including Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin -- was backed by an integrated or even all-white rhythm section.
Moreover, part of retro soul’s appeal is how it provides a refuge of familiarity for those alienated from the popular, contemporary styles of Rihanna, Ciara and other hip-hop-flavored R&B; divas. The latter attract scores of young black listeners, whereas it’s not unusual for Jones to be one of the few black people at her own gigs. These contradictions of conventional racial wisdom are more complex than the “Amy-versus-Sharon” debate.
Nonetheless, this perceived rivalry has positioned Jones as an underdog, and she’s netted massive goodwill and publicity as a result. The Dap-Kings are equally thriving. Their work with Winehouse has raised their profile considerably -- they recently stood in as the MTV Video Music Awards’ house band. If “100 Days, 100 Nights” (out Tuesday) ends up outselling “Naturally” -- and it almost certainly will -- Jones might consider sending Winehouse a thank-you bouquet (maybe with a “Get Well Soon” card attached).
Whatever you make of this “beef,” “100 Days, 100 Nights” deserves every accolade it has and will receive. Since debuting in 2002 with “Dap Dippin’,” Jones and the Dap-Kings have steadily gone from an impressive but derivative re- creation of the James Brown revue to developing a signature style fueled by yesteryear inspirations but not outright imitation.
The group’s previous albums were notably more up tempo, filled with rattling, hip-hop-friendly drum breaks and fiery hoots and screams from Jones. Her vocal instrument is just as rich and powerful on “100 Days, 100 Nights,” but this new effort is more about nuance, both musically and emotionally, than about exploding a row of funk bombs.
The group is at its best with “When the Other Foot Drops, Uncle,” as Jones berates a wayward lover over a slow burn of reverberating guitars and restrained horns. Unexpectedly, the song pivots onto a double-time bass line and what was bluesy and woeful turns delightfully affirmative, aggressive and playful. It’s a sophisticated switch-up and reflective of Jones and the Dap-Kings’ increasing ambitions and abilities.
The less-hurried pace of “100 Days, 100 Nights” draws heavily on the sound of Southern soul, an apt influence in a year that both celebrates Stax Records’ 50th anniversary and mourns the late-2006 passing of James Brown.
Her impassioned ballad, “Humble Me,” deliberately evokes the vocal anguish (and plays off the chord changes) of Irma Thomas’ “Ruler of My Heart” and Redding’s “Pain in My Heart,” while the slinky, mid-tempo “Be Easy” rides off a jaunty Mardi Gras piano roll and east Memphis brass section.
Though the South’s R&B; tradition suffuses much of the album, it’s not all Malaco and Muscle Shoals flavor. The breezy, hand-clapping charm of “Tell Me” exudes a Motown vibe, whereas the faster, funkier “Keep On Looking” carries a subtle hint of the exotic with a rhythm that floats somewhere between Nassau and Lagos. The most charming surprise is “Answer Me,” the first gospel-influenced song Jones has recorded. She eschews heavy-handed solemnity for a rousing, joyous anthem that rocks from pulpit to pew and back.
Given that neither Jones nor Winehouse cops to the existence of any real rivalry, there’s a tickling desire to hear them sing together. After all, each artist has benefited from the other -- Winehouse from Jones/Dap-Kings’ musical innovations, Jones from Winehouse’s popularity.
Retro soul’s rising tide won’t lift their respective boats equally, but both women are going to enjoy banner years by 2007’s end. All that’s left to resolve any remaining hint of tension is to put these two funky divas on a track together and let their voices find a common harmony.
Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed have been released except as indicated.