It was only a matter of time before the Motown sound became as much a part of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’ palette as their standard shades of funk, Afrobeat, and Memphis R&B. The Dap-Kings’ fourth album, I Learned The Hard Way, retains the old grit on songs like “She Ain’t A Child No More,” “Without A Heart,” and the sublime “Mama Don’t Like My Man,” which resemble vintage Tina Turner, Otis Redding, and Mahalia Jackson, respectively. But over the first half of the album, The Dap-Kings are just as rooted in the era when Berry Gordy aspired to compete with the established pop impresarios, applying grandeur and polish to what used to be called “race music.”
At times, the sophistication of the arrangements clashes with songs that would sound better rawer (or live, ideally). But more often than not, the lusher, poppier approach works like gangbusters, as the commanding Jones plays off her background singers on the jazzy opener “The Game Gets Old,” or competes with the blare of John Barry-esque horns on the title track. When the puttering “Better Things” opens with cocktail chatter and a snappy trumpet solo, I Learned The Hard Way brings back the days of working-class pop stars in three-piece suits, crafting songs so catchy that they had to be allowed into the club.