On last year's AIDS benefit album Dark Was the Night, siblings Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National gathered the brightest and best of North America's burgeoning indie/folk/alternative scene to fantastic results. Amid the predominantly acoustic, melancholy landscape it offered, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings' remarkable Shuggie Otis cover suggested a group not so much in thrall to the funk and soul sounds of the 60s and 70s as completely at one with them. Coming off the back of 2007's superb 100 Days, 100 Nights and after nearly ten years in the game, I Learned the Hard Way cements their reputation not only as leading revivalist types, but one of the most exciting acts of the moment.
In many ways, it's not a whole lot different from their last outing, which itself was no great departure from previous works. Over the course of its 12 songs, however, it becomes apparent that Jones is in the form of her life: whether rueing perpetually wandering lovers or impoverishment, contemplating lost innocence or pledging devotion, her spirited delivery resonates with all the power and heartache these compositions demand. In Money she veers from a playful spoken-word introduction to full-blooded howls of desperation, while her performance on the closing Mama Don't Like My Man bleeds tenderness and raw, throaty strength.
But what pushes I Learned the Hard Way towards being something truly brilliant as opposed to just very, very good is how well it works as a cohesive, well-rounded whole. As good as they've been in the past, the group's albums have sometimes come off more like a selection of excellent cuts than something designed to be listened to start to finish. From the sunny strings on which the record opens to its sparse, unaffected finale, it makes for a diverse, engrossing piece in a manner they've never quite pulled off before.
First track The Game Gets Old, funk workout Better Things and the breezy Window Shopping make a case for being some of the best in the band's discography; as has been noted across the board, they stand tall amongst classics of the genre. Likewise, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings can hold their heads high and proud with icons of the scene, for here they match bold exuberance with sensitivity and affection that elevates them far beyond pastiche. --James Skinner
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