ALBUM REVIEW: Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – Soul Of A Woman (Daptone Records)

Formed in 2001, the American funk and soul label, Daptone  Records is, in terms of both recording methods and quality of output, the nearest we now have to classic Stax or Motown. So, when in the space of little over a year, the label lost not only their two biggest stars but two giants of the soul scene, full-stop, it could be considered something of a disaster.

Firstly, in November 2016, Sharon Jones succumbed to the cancer she had fought so bravely for several years, and then, in September this year, we also lost The Screaming Eagle of Soul,  Charles Bradley, also to cancer. Although both artists were relatively late starters in their professional careers, they both released records that, when measured against some of the finest soul albums of the past 60 years, comfortably hold their own. Cruelly, at the time of their premature deaths, both singers were at the peak of their powers with, undoubtedly, some of their best work still to come.

Including their 2015 Christmas album “It’s A Holiday Soul Party”,  “Soul Of A Woman” is Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings seventh studio album since they first entered the studio to record their, and Daptone Records, début record “Dap Dippin With Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings” back in 2002. Since then, although proudly flying the retro-soul tag in a generation full of manufactured, bland and generic singers often touted as “the next ———” (fill in blanks depending on record company desperation), Miss Jones proved, with each new release, that she was the real deal – and then some. On their last studio album proper – 2014’s “Give The People What They Want” –  armed with their best set of songs yet, they sounded more cohesive and fully formed than ever, despite Sharon’s illness, and subsequent treatment, delaying its release.

“Soul Of A Woman”, poignantly released on November 17th, 2017 to coincide with the first anniversary of Sharon Jones’ death is, sentimentality aside, a wonderful record. Of course, there is immense sadness that it’s a posthumous release, but, ably supported by the fabulous Dap-Kings as always, it comprises a set of eleven songs that will serve as a lasting tribute to her immense talent.

The album kicks off with a rousing call for world peace and unity in, “A Matter Of Time” followed by the terrific James Brown-style funk of “Sail On” (below) in which she offers redemption to a former lover who almost certainly doesn’t deserve it! “Give Me Some Time” and “Come And Be A Winner” take things down just a notch before the catchy as hell, Motown-esque “Rumors” ends the more upbeat first-half of the album.

Side two, despite being more ballad-heavy, is still full of positive vibes. The Hammond rich Southern Soul of “Pass Me By” is gorgeous but lovelorn, and, with a passing nod to Rose Royce’s “Wishing On A Star”, “These Tears (No Longer For You) sees our leading lady displaying her trademark strength in dealing with the bad-boys in her romantic liaisons. The languid, summery “Searching For A New Day” could have been lifted from a Style Council greatest-hits album; the soaring “When I Saw Your Face” is a straight-up tale of love at first sight and “Girl! (You Got To Forgive Him), could have, with a little push in the right direction, been lifted from a Bond movie – and how great would Sharon Jones singing a Bond theme have sounded!

And yet, for all its positivity and upbeat grooviness, when the last, plaintive notes of the beautiful and moving gospel hymn “Call On God” (below), that Sharon wrote forty years ago when singing with the Universal Church of God choir,  fade away, I had tears rolling down my cheeks.

RIP Miss Jones – the world is certainly a less joyful place without you in it


FILM REVIEW: Northern Soul

As a brief introduction for the uninitiated, the term “Northern Soul” was coined by DJ and soul music aficionado, Dave Godin, in 1970 and can be loosely described as a specific type of heavily syncopated, black American “Motown-esque” dance music, often originally released in the 1960’s, by unknown and largely forgotten artists. The burgeoning scene that grew up around the phenomena developed its own unique fashion style and dance moves and peaked during the mid 70’s with worshippers flocking to several well-known venues including Manchester’s Twisted Wheel, The Golden Torch in Stoke, Blackpool Mecca and most famously Wigan Casino, where the film is centred.

t has been reported that the “committed clubber” and Northern Soul obsessed writer and director of the film, Elaine Constantine, remortgaged her home, cashed in her pension and poured all the family savings into funding its making which has taken over three years from the first day of shooting to its commercial release in October this year. It probably goes without saying that this fact alone would guarantee an astonishing level of detail and authenticity from such a devotee to the scene – and we aren’t left wanting.

Growing up in a farming community in the West Country during the 70’s, the nearest I got to dancing at a drug and drink-fuelled “all-nighter” was playing air guitar to Status Quo at a local barn dance while sipping cans of Shandy Bass and getting a sugar rush from too many sherbet dib-dabs, but, like all great period dramas, Northern Soul’s strength lies in is its ability to transport you to a time and place with such skill, that, on leaving the cinema, I spent 5 minutes wondering where I’d parked my Morris Marina.

The film itself, set in 1974, is an age-old tale of disenchantment, rebellion, friendship, love, loss and hope but with added dancing and a peerless soundtrack. There are decent cameos from experienced actors Steve Coogan (teacher), Lisa Stansfield (mother), Ricky Tomlinson (granddad) and John Thomson (youth club DJ), but the two main leads, Eliot James Langridge who plays John Clark and Josh Whitehouse his best mate Matt are relative newcomers to the big screen, and both put in superb and believable performances. They portray a couple of teenagers who discover the joys of the Northern Soul scene which serves as something of an escape route from their uninspiring school days and dead-end factory jobs. Such is their passion for the music that they make plans to open their own club after flying to America with a dream of bringing back bundles of undiscovered and collectable 45’s.

There are both moments of high comedy and some touching, emotional scenes during the film’s 102 minutes, but what sets it apart from its inevitable touchstone, 2010’s “Soul Boy”, is the dark and menacing undercurrent of drug use which is an increasingly prevalent theme throughout. As a result of the escalating amphetamine abuse we witness imprisonments, paranoia, the breakdown of friendships and ultimately, tragedy and these are the main reasons, despite the two movies being depictions of the same subject, that they are in many ways, about as similar as Mickey Blue Eyes and The Godfather.

One point should be made clear – the naysayers bemoaning the fact that the film doesn’t contain enough dancing or music should probably be seeking out a more prosaic representation of the scene. If it’s facts and reality that you’re after there are some excellent documentaries available about this wonderful genre, however, it does seem that the people making these negative statements are missing the point – this is fiction. Well written, meticulously researched and at times, no doubt, subject to a little artistic license, but fiction nevertheless.

So, for anyone that hasn’t actually seen the film yet and who may have been put off watching by the pedantic few, rest assured, as plenty of great music and incredible dancing DOES form a not inconsiderable backdrop to what is, ultimately, a cracking, well produced story. Keep the faith – you won’t be disappointed.