One of the problems with contemporary renderings of vintage styles is that faithfulness to the aesthetic can often trump solid songwriting. Contemporary rockabilly, bluntly put, brings nothing to the table in terms of originality. Writing a really lasting song is sacrificed at the hands of a want to appear authentic. And, arguably, with rockabilly, songwriting was always second to a sense of style anyway. To paraphrase Mike Ehrmantraut, just because you sound like Charlie Feathers (or look like him for that matter), don’t make you Charlie Feathers. First you have to be yourself.
This dilemma applies equally to classic soul. While there’s certainly more to work with than in rockabilly, both the genres’ songwriters and its supreme stylists have set the bar so high as to render new iterations suspect. Additionally, soul music, like the roots style before it, was all about the single — that one individual song that was going to slay us. While contemporary rock musicians were discovering the virtues of the long-player, soul was carving its place in a newly available post-“race music” market one side at a time. If a song couldn’t be a hit single, you threw it on the trash heap and moved on. Fast-forward to 2014 and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. The now-well-established ensemble pulls off a notable twofer with Give the People What They Want. It’s made a full-length album that hangs together as a distinct whole, and it’s also written a collection of unique songs that stands tall as an example of what still makes the genre vital.
Only time will tell if Give the People contains any bona fide classics, but certainly tracks such as “Stranger to My Happiness,” “Get Up and Get Out” and “Now I See” should be viewed as more than disposable retro exercises. Give the People never lands on one specific soul sound, either. Driven by the always-reliable Dap-Kings, it’s not indebted to Motown any more than Stax; it doesn’t produce Northern Soul grooves at the expense of a sultrier vibe. There’s even a hint of rocksteady and the Beatlesque, but it’s not a grab-bag run-down either.
A former prison guard, Jones didn’t begin her career until she was in her 40s, so it’s a moot point to accuse someone in her position of retro fetishism when they’ve simply found their true calling a little later in life. And while it wouldn’t absolve Jones if she turned in a sub par record (which she didn’t), the charm that her story brings to the proceedings is unavoidable. Her tales of woe and heartache and her gritty threats to would-be scorners have that much more punch when one is aware of just how much genuine elbow grease is behind them. Add to that Jones’s recent battle with cancer and you’d have to be a real cynic not to cheer for her. It would have been simple and understandable even for Sharon Jones and her band to take the easy route and toss-off a bunch of danceable retro ditties, Lord knows that wasn’t looked down upon back in the day either. Jones and her team are clearly committed to both a sense of history and a sense of true craft. They’ve chosen to dig in and walk strong alongside the giants on whose shoulder they first got a boost.