Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Review: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - 100 Days 100 Nights and Angie Stone - The Art of Love and War

Label: Daptone Records

Released: October 2, 2007

Label: Concord

Released: October 16, 2007

It would seem that the essential component of soul music (old school or new) would be the soul itself, yet that is often just what modern soul and R&B lack. Too often even a good R&B singer has a tough time overcoming assembly line songwriting and synthetic backing tracks. It is this old versus new soul difference that separates the new releases from Sharon Jones and Angie Stone.

Without question, both singers have great voices. In fact, Stone's is probably technically superior, but that is the only place that she manages to measure up to Jones on these albums. When you strip away that sheen, what's underneath, the soul, isn't even close.

Years ago, Sharon Jones was told that she was too dark-skinned, too short, too fat and once she passed 25, too old. Jones didn't get a break until she was 40 (singing backup on a Lee Fields record). In the meantime, she worked as a Wells Fargo armored car guard and a corrections officer at Rikers (!), but she kept singing. Angie Stone's break came much earlier, having a hit record as a member of The Sequence before her 20th birthday as well as at least middling success until taking off in the last decade. I can't help but wonder if the "business" hasn't robbed Stone of something that it in turn augmented in Jones through her struggles. While that may not explain why, these two albums leave little doubt that Sharon Jones just has more soul.

Sharon Jones' voice is everything that a good soul voice should be. It can be bold, soft, sultry, strong, defiant. She connects on a human level, because she sings with more than just her voice. After all these years, there's no going through the motions. She has hunger and confidence despite being ripped off. Her energy isn't angry though, just righteous. Her backing band, the Dap-Kings, whose horns helped light the fire on the otherwise soul-deprived Amy Winehouse's debut, is the kind of natural, organic band that has crossover appeal in the rock world. They have more in common with the Family Stone or even the Allman Brothers and Black Crowes than they do with modern R&B sounds. Rhythmically, they propel the music, giving Jones even more force. The horns are so natural that they work in the capacity of background vocals. They're just that rich. The intense interaction between Jones and the band is what makes the album so big and bold, so natural and alive. 100 Days, 100 Nights is essentially a 60s soul album, but it doesn't come off like a revival. The record is very much in the here and now despite its vintage approach.

There's no doubt that Angie Stone has the voice to make a great record, but The Art of Love and War is just formula R&B. The beats are measured and precise. The piano has all the emotion of light jazz. The background vocals are generic. The result is an album that sounds as if all the pieces were recorded in isolation and queued up to have Stone's vocals recorded on top like karaoke. There's none of the human interaction that makes Sharon Jones soar. Instead, it's just cold, synthetic music that robs Stone of any emotion she may have brought. Neither Stone nor the backing tracks have any touch, any feel, any swing. While this might be acceptable fare for an indiscriminate modern R&B fan, anyone looking for real soul, the kind that would crossover into other genres, will be sorely disappointed. This is a superficial soundscape and you don't have to poke very hard to find that it's paper-thin.

Whether it's their past or their present or some combination of the two, there's a world of difference between these two very talented singers on their latest albums. Quite simply, Sharon Jones has made an album that knows the true meaning of soul and Angie Stone has not.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
Satriani: 8/10
Zappa: 5/10
Dylan: 7/10
Aretha: 10/10
Overall: 9/10



Angie Stone
Satriani: 7/10
Zappa: 2/10
Dylan: 4/10
Aretha: 4/10
Overall: 5/10



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