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Posted Jun 1st, 2010 (12:42 pm) by John-Ross Boyce

Thank God for the revival of soul. When I was a teenager, the only place to satisfy one's hankering for a solid horn section was at a Reel Big Fish/Less Than Jake Third Wave Ska Crap-O-Rama, amid a whole infantry of ass-clowns who think fedoras are cool. No one should have to go through that kind of aural horrors just hear someone competently play a trumpet. Until about age 26, I was still plagued by a horrible recurring nightmare - giant checkered Vans slip-ons squishing me in a gargantuan, horrifying skanking session, while Dicky Barrett from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones has rowdy sex with my mother.

The cure? Not therapy. Not prayer. Not self-medicating (although it's always fun to make the attempt). It seems that hearing properly played brass and woodwind, in the context of true-blue Soul, was just what the proverbial doctor ordered. The source? “The Game Gets Old”, the opening track off I Learned The Hard Way by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. My nightmares are gone. Now I dream every night of Princess Leia in her gold bikini and my life is awesome.

Upon the initial listen, “The Game Gets Old” sounds more like an obscure bit of score from one of the Rocky films than a return to Motown-and-Stax-style composition. The horns enter in an absolute full moon howl, a fanfare fit for the entrance of a gladiator into the Colosseum, amid the rumble of drums – as if to herald the triumphant return of an old heavyweight champ back into the ring for another bout. A horn section has probably not been as simultaneously sexy and dramatic since The Delfonics.
As Jones begins to sing, the listener realizes what a fitting intro said horns really provide. Sharon Jones' voice is pure sex – not the flippant, ridiculous, and pointless sex of today's self-styled “divas,” but the kind which communicates a rich mixture of experience and class. Smooth as silk at one moment, rough as ten miles of bad road the next, Jones' voice takes the listener right to the threshold of emotion and then pulls back, in the same way that a seasoned thespian will do everything except cry in the big Oscar-moment. Choosing to restrain her vocal chords, though they could do far more “impressive” work on the track, makes forlorn atmosphere of the song all the more palpable.

Part of the reason why “The Game Gets Old” is perhaps the harbinger of Soul's rebirth is its production. Daptone Records, the home base of Jones' Dap-Kings, records exclusively in analogue, which lends a warmer, richer feel to the recording and makes the listeners believe for a split-second that they've discovered a lost relic from the genre's golden years. Another reason is the song's texture – lush backing vocals, trembling flute tones, and a set of chimes hit in time with Jones' declaration that the game does indeed get old, as woebegone as tears dropping one at a time on a pillow. Simplicity rarely plays in a genre like soul because Soul music is about one individual's connection to the world. The reason why a typical soul song will feature bass, guitar, drums, extra percussion, organs, strings, backing vocals, and just about anything else that the producer can think of, is to emphasize that sort of inter-connectivity. In Soul, when you're in love, the sun shines every day, the birds all sing in harmony, and everyone around you is dancing. When your heart has been broken, even the trees sag in despair, the clouds hold each other and weep endlessly, and the city traffic trudges on like a funeral procession.

“The Game Gets Old” is only the beginning. The entire rest of a I Learned The Hard Way follows this form almost to the letter. Sure it’s technically an old formula, but it’s also one that hasn't been followed in quite a while. While the rest of the music world heads off on in quixotic pursuit of something new and experimental, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings went revivalist on our asses. Ironically, they've produced one of the freshest breaths of air this year. You can stream this track at Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings' Website

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