"It hurts me inside just to hear your name," sings Sharon Jones during the title track to I Learned the Hard Way, her fourth and finest album of classic soul affirmations.
That might sound like a pining remark, but the Georgia-born, New York-bred singer is nobody's fool. With the muscular, brass-driven conviction of her band, the Dap-Kings, she tackles I Learned the Hard Way's numerous love-gone-wrong songs with boundless conviction while matching the assertiveness of tunes like She Ain't a Child No More and Give It Back. After all, before her career took off in the mid-'90s, Jones worked as a corrections officer at Rikers Island. A pushover she's not.
But I Learned the Hard Way also embraces the No. 1 lesson of classic soul. No matter how dire the life lessons become, there must also be warmth.
Sure, it's easy to dismiss Jones, the Dap-Kings and even the Brooklyn-based label Daptone Records as mere revivalist tools of a movement devoted to a bygone soul-music era. And to be sure, I Learned the Hard Way is modeled after the great soul records from the mid-'60s and early '70s. But listen to the ways strings, reeds, brass, even glockenspiel wrap around the urgency of Jones' singing on the album's lead-off track, The Game Gets Old, and you discover a rich, organic musical makeup that initially offsets but ultimately underscores the lyrical turbulence.
The old soul masters of decades past did that, too. But Jones, for all the tender-hearted sentiments at the root of her singing, is a fierce independent. As such, a lover's wayward glances in Window Shopping are rewarded with a lyrical slap in the face even though a core groove of guitar, percussion and churchy organ punctuates the discourse. Once the horns enter, the song sounds almost celebratory. Still, Jones' defiant streak is never muted.
Some of the tunes' tales, like Give It Back, are more cautionary. But the resulting music in no less revelatory as it uses Jones vocals as a springboard for an arrangement that colors romantic reluctance with cool tones of vibraphone, sleek background vocals and, of course, the Dap-Kings' musical plot exposition.
Lovers of old-school soul who caught up with Jones on 2007's splendid 100 Days, 100 Nights will find I Learned the Hard Way an even greater retro-fortified feast. But anyone wanting to dig deeper will find Jones and the Dap-Kings are willing to go with them. This is an album that delivers big on what great rhythm and blues was built on: love, promise and hard-earned groove for a troubled emotional landscape.