Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings update a retro sound

By John Lavanga / A&E Editor

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings

Give the People What They Want

Grade: B

Sounds like: Motown, baby

It’s been nearly 26 years since Motown Records was sold to MCA by its disenchanted owner Berry Gordy and 42 years since the iconic music label abandoned its blue-collar hometown of Detroit for the star-speckled streets of Los Angeles. In the years since, it’s been a souvenir of a bygone era, sold back and forth between major labels, such as Universal and MCA, who are more interested in reaping the label’s royalties than producing the next Stevie Wonder.

With all this in mind, it’s tempting to write off neo-soul group Sharon Jones and the Dap-King’s curiously titled new album, Give the People What They Want, as a bit of nostalgic fluff more at home in a bygone era when the world of music revolved around the latest 7-inch pressing from Gladys Knight and the Pips or The Jackson 5 (instead of a pirated version of Kanye West’s newest opus discovered days before it’s set to be released).

But Jones and her brilliant backing band aren’t offering listeners a retread of the old Motown tunes. Instead, they’re looking to give us a revival of the Motown spirit. Though the effort is tiresome at times, Jones and company remind us that, as far as we are into the Digital Age, many of the reasons we turn to music are still the same.

From start to finish, Give the People What They Want makes deft use of all the old Motown tricks — grooving bass lines, a lively horn section and that irresistible chemistry between Jones and her backup singers — to create a collection of tracks that showcase Jones in all her different iterations. 

Nowhere is Sharon Jones more powerful than on the track’s opener, “Retreat!” It’s a battle song for soul-lovers — the track opens with the ominous roll of timpani drums followed immediately by percussion that mirrors the sound of boots clacking on concrete in a relentless march. As the full band comes in, Jones takes up the microphone and greets a cocky suitor with a barrage of sonic warning shots. 

“Step back boy, because you can’t fix crazy./ Raise your white flag high because I’m coming in blazing,” she belts out, her just-slightly-gravelly voice bristling with confidence. She’s simultaneously intimidating and sexy. If — as Pat Benatar famously asserted — love is a battlefield, Jones is an accomplished veteran with scars on her heart and medals pinned to her uniform.

Yet on the album’s last track, “Slow Down, Love,” she carries that same self-assurance without giving up an ounce of sentimentality. As the guitar’s softly strummed chords play atop an understated horn section and gently swirling bass line, she softly tells a lover: “Slow down love, and come closer. The time has come for you to hush.”

Jones’ refreshing conviction saves much of the album from out-and-out mediocrity, but even her vocal swagger can’t save the middle of the record from lapsing into monotony. The middle of the album’s tempo is so uniform that, although each track stands up perfectly well on its own, they tend to blend together, dulling the emotional edge each song can carry. 

It’s a contradictory and somewhat frustrating experience. The album’s aforementioned standouts prove that the Dap-Kings’ band leader (as well as producer and Daptone Records label owner) Bosco Mann is fully capable of orchestrating powerful, original music in a genre that was abandoned decades ago. To structure the album in such a homogenous fashion almost feels lazy — as though Mann felt that the songs were so good on their own that their placement wouldn’t matter.

Still, Give the People What They Want is a collection of inspired tracks and proof that no matter how many touchscreen devices we own, a sexy bass line still hits home. Between Mann’s songwriting and Jones’ charisma, the band reminds us that we still want that Motown sound, even if we didn’t realize it.