Sharon Jones, Leadbelly, and Why Most Soul Music Sucks Now

Let’s be clear at the outset here: I do not think Sharon Jones is any part of the reason why most Soul sucks now. To the contrary, if today’s shitty teenage Soulsters took a page from Jones’s playbook, I’d be as happy with Soul music as I would be if Otis Redding was still alive. (For the record, that’s pretty fucking happy)

The fact that I know going in what every Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings record is going to sound like has, so far, never diminished my enjoyment of those records. The obvious reason is probably that Sharon Jones has the best set of Old School Soul Pipes this side of Bettye LaVette (if you don’t know who Bettye LaVette is, stop reading this right now. Get up from your desk. Exit your cubicle. Head for your nearest music store. Realize, after a moment, that those don’t really exist any more. Get back to your cubicle. Sit down. Open a new tab in your browser – you can keep this tab open, but you can’t continue reading yet – and download, legally or less-than-legally, Bettye LaVette’s music. You are now a better person and therefore good enough to continue reading this little spiel about Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) and the second most obvious reason is that the Dap-Kings, though I have no idea what a Dap-King is, play some straight up funky soul music to underscore Jones’s crooning, strutting, and squawking.

Another reason I always love Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings is that they sound the way R&B and Soul sounded when it was good. I’m sorry if you think the shit that passes for Soul now is even remotely soulful. Perhaps you should go back and listen to Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield and then maybe you’ll recognize that R. Kelly, Mariah Carey, Joss Stone, and everyone of their ilk should be jailed for crimes against truth and beauty (thank you for that phrase, Mystery Science Theater 3000′s Kevin Murphy. I give credit where it’s due and Mr. Murphy wrote the plain truth in A Year at the Movies when he asserted, “Kevin Costner is a cultural criminal and ought to be locked up for crimes against truth and beauty”). I’m not one of those old, half-dead assholes who thinks that all old music is great and all new music is bad (it wouldn’t make much sense to have a music blog on the internets if I was so in love with the past) – plenty of old stuff that old people revere is patently awful. Like Kiss. Fuck Kiss. And fuck Elvis Presley while we’re at it. If he’s the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, it only proves that monarchies are bullshit (Leadbelly was the real King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and I’m not saying that out of some unfounded belief that Elvis was a racist [I have no idea if he was or not]. I’m saying it because there are literal tons of rock songs that simply would not exist were it not for Leadbelly’s blues. I’d argue that the musicians who influenced Elvis owed a tremendous debt to Mr. Ledbetter as well. If you’ve never listened to Leadbelly, get some of his stuff from the internet when you’re done getting Bettye LaVette’s stuff). Where was I? Oh yeah – I don’t think that the only good music was made years before I was born, but in the case of Soul/R&B music, something is often missing: soul.

Sharon Jones sweats soul and then pours that Soul-Sweat into every single note she sings, which is not nearly as disgusting as it sounds. Take her new album, I Learned the Hard Way. Whether she’s admonishing her dude (“I Learned the Hard Way” and, well, most of the tracks), defending him to her moms (“Mama Don’t Like My Man”), or praising a god I don’t believe in (“Call On God” – it’s available on the “bonus version” of I Learned the Hard Way that you can get from E-Music. This version is worth getting because “Call On God” is really fucking gorgeous), Jones’s voice is strong, clear, and – thank goodness – never auto-tuned. Too much of the so-called Soul music I hear today is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay overproduced, from the instruments to the vocals to the trite label-supplied lyrics. Even Alicia Keys, whose music I like (I am secure enough in my masculinity to admit that), would benefit tremendously from taking all the fucking computers and bullshit out of the studio and recording something with a real piano and her voice and nothing else. I don’t know if the modern Soul nitwits think all that hyper-produced nonsense and uber-vibrato singing sounds modern or what, but it ends up all sounding the same (i.e., like shit).

Some folks might be tempted to argue that Sharon Jones is simply repackaging the past in a gimmicky, perhaps even cynical attempt to sell us our own record collections all over again. To these folks, I offer this simple, elegant counterargument: shut the fuck up. Okay, seriously though: we already know that all Western music is somehow derivative of the music that came before it. The Beatles took from the blues and those guys took from slaves in the fields who blah blah blah and so on until you get back to Fuckrock the Elder, whose wailing entertainments knocked ’em dead at the Neanderthal sock-hops even though discerning cave people recognized his stuff as highly derivative of Glugnuts the Hideous’s early experiments in atonal rape-grunting. So, at the end of the day, you have to listen to the music itself and decide (for yourself only) if it’s the real thing or not. This can be hard with old-school music like Sharon Jones performs. But here’s a tip: if the music waters down the style of which it is derivative, it’s probably crap. Take, as an example, the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Setzer has apparently made it his life’s mission to water down old, soulful swing music so that your parents can reminisce about music they never danced to at parties they never attended*. One of the unintentional results of this is that Louis Prima’s surviving family members are legally allowed to kill Brian Setzer (the government has been trying to keep this a secret for years because there’s nothing bureaucrats love more than a banal, watered down distillation of something that was once vibrant and beautiful). If you stack Sharon Jones and her Dap-Kings up against, say, Otis Redding, I think you’ll find the two fit fairly well together.

But you can find all this out for yourself by listening to I Learned the Hard Way, which you should do once you get through your Bettye LaVette and Leadbelly homework. Your work is cut out for you. Get to it!

*How do I know your parents aren’t cool? I just know. Accept it. It’s not your fault.

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One thought on “Sharon Jones, Leadbelly, and Why Most Soul Music Sucks Now

  1. My parents: My dad listens to smooth jazz, and yet my mother still married him, I need no affirmations of their uncoolness. I know I am uncool because I have crotchety views about annoying teenagers at age the ripe hip age of 30…

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