In the past year, Sharon Jones’ fairy-tale music career—the commanding soul dynamo of the retro-fabulous Dap-Kings was once a Rikers Island corrections officer and obscure session singer—hit a bump. The 57-year-old was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, which necessitated the removal of a tumor and chemotherapy. Naturally, Jones tackled her disease with the same kind of tenacity and pluck she displays fronting the Dap-Kings. For example, the caption of her Facebook photo standing next to other bald bandmates: “Finally I fit in..#baldband.”
Her diagnosis pushed the release of the Dap-Kings’ fifth album, Give The People What They Want, from August 2013 until now. But it’s not as if the group’s music has ever been time-sensitive; in fact, although much more upbeat than 2010’s I Learned The Hard Way, this new record doesn’t deviate from the Stax- and Motown-indebted music of the Dap-Kings’ previous albums. While the band has been criticized in the past for this consistency—often, it’s mistaken for a lack of musical growth—on Give The People What They Want, it’s a case of the group playing to its strengths.
Multiple songs boast punchy horns and reedy saxophones with a distinctively funky strut, including the fleet-footed briskness of “People Don’t Get What They Deserve” and more laid-back “You’ll Be Lonely.” But the record doesn’t skimp on diversity, either: Familiar-sounding retro ringers (“Long Time, Wrong Time” sounds like Aretha Franklin doing karaoke to Steely Dan’s “Do It Again”), brassy soul meant to be performed live (“Now I See”), and a dynamite kiss-off to an ex (the swinging “Retreat!”) are also present.
Give The People What They Want’s songs also tread well-established thematic ground, whether they’re savoring romance (the languid “Slow Down, Love”), longing for peace (“We Get Along”), or struggling through heartbreak (“Stranger To My Happiness”). Still, these familiar tropes have more gravitas thanks to dynamic backup vocalists Saundra Williams and Starr Duncan (known as The Dapettes), who add lively accompaniment throughout. The pair contributes extra background sass on “You’ll Be Lonely,” while their fluttering harmonies conjure Motown girl-group flair on “Making Up And Breaking Up.” Even better, their precise harmonizing with Jones on “Get Up And Get Out” bolsters the song’s message of self-empowerment (and self-reliance).
These additional musicians give the album vivacious color and rich sonic depth, but also underscore that Jones and the Dap-Kings are always pushing to refine and improve their sound. Give The People What They Want certainly lives up to its name, but it’s no rehash of the past—or a collection that panders.