This what soul music is all about. Sharon Jones was a modern-day paragon of soul, and her life was its own triumphant soul song. Soul music is the expression of people’s downright magical ability to nourish love, optimism and generosity of spirit out of a lifetime of hardship, disappointment and misfortune. It’s this big-spirited perseverance that allows us, as people, to continue hanging in there, all together. Nothing reflects that more than the vibrancy and creative joy that flourish in the most oppressed and disenfranchised communities. All broad sociological strokes aside, though, we love soul music because it makes us feel good and reminds us that we can and should feel good despite the worst of times, and that satiates a universal thirst for comfort.
We know that a life of beauty, wealth and fame is not guaranteed to be free from pain and suffering. But we also know that a life without those things is absolutely guaranteed to deliver the hard knocks and to never stop delivering them. And that success after a life of hard knocks is very rare. Sharon Jones is one of those rare people who worked her way to fame over decades of poverty and struggle, and she has, indeed, a unique perspective on life. She has a perspective even the greatest soul and blues singers may not have had. She didn’t observe life from the remove of a working performer, imagining it from the stage or through the window of a tour bus; she saw the real ugliness up close, in her job as a guard on Rikers Island. That kind of work can destroy the soul of the person who has to do it, but for Jones, it did the opposite. It allowed her sing about hard-knock things with empathy and authority, to be a voice for women like herself. She has no patience for shitbag men and their romantic platitudes, for one thing, and she has no patience for tough-guy posturing and big talk. She has no patience for people who don’t treat their loved ones with love and respect. What she does have is all the love and respect for women who get knocked down and get back up and learn to keep on fighting. She has respect for children who grow up strong in spite of all the hard knocks their parents passed down to them. Here, she specifically calls out the cruelty of abusive parents and celebrates the child’s strength to grow up and stand up for themselves and break the cycle.
Sharon Jones has the answer to the age old soul singer’s question of what to do with a no-good man. Obliterate him. Make him quiver before your fabulosity. Send him packing with his bag of tricks. Jones learned the hard way how no-good live could be, but her message was never that life sucks. Because Jones also learned that music and creativity are the path to empowerment. She earned her creative and economic independence after many years of struggling, which makes her just about the most inspiring role model anyone could hope for. She wasn’t a 17-year-old sensation whose career was a reward for being pretty. She was a tough woman with something to say, who honed her talent in obscurity and earned the respect of her peers. The unfortunate downside to late-life success is that the good years may not last very long, and Sharon Jones was one of the casualties of 2016 (she dealt with the election of Donald Trump by dropping dead, which is something a lot of us wish we could have done.) She deserved many more years of building her legacy.
A slightly belated tribute to the late legend Sharon Jones. Jones passed away on November 18th, and if nobody has optioned the film rights to her life story yet, someone needs to get on it. (I want Viola Davis on this, ASAP!) Jones’ life was truly a success story that couldn’t have been better written; she was one of those rare artists whose talents aren’t rewarded until well into mid-life. She was in her mid forties when she became one of the founding artists at Daptone Records, and began recording with her band The Dap-Kings. Before that she spent years working as a guard at Rikers Island and other thankless jobs. Even her passing was a twist stranger than fiction – weakened by an ongoing battle with cancer, she suffered a stroke while watching the results of the presidential election. But, though fascinating, Jones’ incredible life is not really what her legacy is about. Her legacy is how she near-singlehandedly revived old-school soul and funk music at a time when R’N’B was more ‘ratchet and bitches’ than ‘rhythm and blues’. Neo-soul has become increasingly popular recently, with more interest in classic Motown and a wave of younger artists like Anthony Hamilton and Mayer Hawthorne adapting the style. And it was Sharon Jones who took the form out of the realm of nostalgia and pastiche; making searing authentic soul music for a new generation; reminding us that real soul is never irrelevant.
So it’s time again to take stock of the year past and take in some of the highlights. 2010 was a very good year. It was the first year in a long, long time that I could afford to buy food at Central Market instead of Wal-Mart. I could purchase lingerie at Victoria’s Secret instead of Wal-Mart. I did my holiday shopping at real boutiques instead of Wal-Mart. You get the general idea here, I think. In short, I earned a living wage, went to a lot of shows, ate a lot of food, drank a lot of wine, traveled, dated intensively, learned a lot and generally enjoyed a high caliber quality of life.
Highlights include in no particular order… getting thrown out of an English Beat show for, um, I don’t remember what, but probably fighting. Not getting thrown out of an encore English Beat show. Making out with a cute stranger at a Valentine’s Day Nouvelle Vague show. Having a Dead Weather roadie tell me my outfit is “very Karen O.” Getting dumped for the second time in my life and not crying about it. Many instances of drinking myself into a rolling blackout. Free wiener-on-a-stick at ACL courtesy of my parent company. Groping M.I.A.’s ass at ACL. Getting to see the full Cremaster Cycle on the big screen courtesy of the now defunct Dobie Cinemas. Going overseas, including a flyover glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. Meeting family members I didn’t know existed. Seeing A Night At The Opera, and also seeing a night at the opera. Getting certain bad influences out of my life once and for all. Getting my first tattoo, courtesy of the lovely and gracious Dresden Dolls. Completing my self-appointed Year of Living (for lack of a better term) SATCily. Seeing the old one out in, not exactly style, but definitely with a sense of achievement. I just can’t wait to fall right into my next big mistake.
Now, musicwise…What a good year! So many great records streaming in! In fact, there’s been so many good ones that I won’t limit myself to just ten. Because there’s more than ten albums I’ve been listening to this year. There was a disappointment or two, sure. The Knife put out a virtually unlistenable opera based on the works of Charles Darwin. Vampire Weekend is still insufferable. Matt & Kim aren’t as great as everyone says they are. Broken Bells literally made me fall asleep standing up (not that their album was bad or anything). And as usual, the top forty was an orgy of the bland, the talentless and the downright terrible. But on the bright side, I’ve found so much to love. Here’s the ones I couldn’t stop playing…
- Sea of Cowards – The Dead Weather
- Here Lies Love – David Byrne & Fatboy Slim
- The Ghost Who Walks – Karen Elson
- This Is Happening – LCD Soundsystem
- Treats – Sleigh Bells
- Trans-Continental Hustle – Gogol Bordello
- /\/\/\Y/\ – M.I.A.
- Olympia – Bryan Ferry
- Congratulations – MGMT
- Body Talk – Robyn
- Soldier of Love – Sade
- Endlessly – Duffy
- I Learned The Hard Way – Sharon Jones &The Dap-Kings
If you’ve been reading for any amount of time, my feelings about Jack White must be known to you. I think the man is a god-put-on-earth. He can do no wrong. He has vision. He makes me want to find my demon. Plus, he’s a really nice guy. The first Dead Weather album was pretty great (it was on my list last year) but it was just an appetizer. It’s a feast of dirty, sexy, crazy energy. The collaboration between Jack and the incredible Alison Mosshart has fully blossomed at last. The difference is that unlike the other Jack projects, this one is dripping with female energy. Isn’t it tiresome that it’s always the boys who’re getting their rocks off? Not anymore.
Leave it to David Byrne to do something completely random and make it so brilliant it starts to make sense. A collaboration between the polyglot Byrne and master DJ Fatboy Slim was sure to yield interesting results. Byrne reached into his bag of ideas and out comes a two-disc concept album rescuing Imelda Marcos from the joke-bins of history. If anyone remembered her at all, it was as a symbol of vulgar consumption in the face of poverty – she owns thousands of shoes. Thousands! Whatever her crimes, Mrs. Marcos is still a person; an aspiring singer and beauty queen who married into wealth and power, felt shame about her poor education and less-than-lavish upbringing, endured exile and her husband’s infidelities and found a late-life political career of her own. All this and more you’ll learn, all complete with Fatboy beats, Byrne’s dry wit, and perfomances from an A-list parade of singers. I’ve heard that Marcos herself gave the project her blessing and even wanted a chance to sing something.
I’ve admired Karen Elson’s modeling career since circa 1997 – that’s more than a decade, centuries in model years. I loved her look, her fiery red hair, her porcelain whiteness, her eyebrow shaving boldness. When she started to talk about going into music I wanted to see her succeed. Then she scored a real coup in her personal life – you know of what I am speaking – and it looked like the music dreams would be shelved forever. After all, nobody wants to be seen as the talentless spouse riding her man’s coat-tails towards her own ambitions. But guess what! She finally made a record and it’s incredible any way you slice it and she is incredibly talented. Her voice is as beautiful as her visage, and her songs are beautiful too. Songs she wrote, literally, in the closet. Where any number of model-slash-whatevers have fallen flat on their face, Karen nailed it. Besides being a great singer, she has her own distinct sound, a kind of goth-folk with strains of Nashville and maybe just a hint of whatever planet Tom Waits is broadcasting from.
Ok, this is something I downloaded on a whim because the buzz on it was so good. (I think some reviewer evoked the mythical Berlin Trilogy founding fathers as influences.) And guess what! The buzz was all true. I love to dance and I love dance music and I love electronica and great beats and blippy sound effects and all that. But it’s hard to know where the good stuff is. Because so much dance/electronic music is utter rubbish. It’s what the old folks say; any idiot with a keyboard can cue up a beat, add some pings to it and a loop of someone chanting nonsense, and there’s your big dance single. I’ve tried randomly downloading electronica that I’d been told was good and just thinking “this is a brainless waste of gigabytes”. For example, the much hyped Deadmau5 record I found simply mind-numbing. So here’s something with brains you can dance to. And even harder to find on the dance floor, it’s got heart. Starring James Murphy, a doughy aging hipster smart enough to know he’s doughy and aging, and to write an album about it.
This might be the authentic sound of now. Or not. I believe they’re calling it ‘noise pop’. That’s not a terribly appealing name, but I guess the point is to scare off the oldsters. To me Sleigh Bells sound so fresh. Alexis Krauss has a lovely voice, and the ‘ah ah ah’s and ‘oh oh oh’s she emits in every song are straight from some long-lost girl group from the pre-Fab sixties. The lovely’s hidden underneath a storm of feedback, so you may not notice it at first. However it makes a balance – lovely vs loud, sugary vs dirty. Beauty and noise.
Gogol Bordello are looking to go widespread. Hence a record sleeve of Eugene Hutz looking almost presentable and production courtesy of Rick Rubin. They sound professional for the first time, and it’s good. Their earlier albums, brilliantly alive though they are, didn’t have the highest production values. Also, they suffered from energy overkill, or rather they didn’t suffer but some listeners might have. This is their most accessible record, but don’t say they’ve sold out. (Or maybe they have – Eugene is on speaking terms with Madonna. If that’s not selling out I don’t know what is.) You can still shake a leg to it, or more likely your booty. This time around there’s more room for Eugene’s thoughtfuller side. He’s always had thoughts, sure, but sometimes they got a little lost underneath all the PARTY! If you thought the more lyrical songs where the highlights of Super Taranta! you’ll appreciate how much more autobiographical and open-hearted Eugene’s songwriting has become. Or maybe it’s always been that way but everybody was too drunk to notice.
Alright, M.I.A. was never for everybody to begin with. So it’s not big shock when nothing on her new album was as easily accessible as Paper Planes or Boyz some armchair judges decided she wasn’t cool anymore. No, she’s still cool. Maybe she’s cooler than ever because she more interested in pursuing her interests than being fun or accessible. Yeah, the album is built on noise, and there’s liberal dollops of weird autotune, and cryptic lyrics as usual. The lady holds true to her convictions, whatever they are. And really, it’s almost admirable – it’s her most high profile, hotly anticipated release yet, and still it sounds like she threw it together in a basement with a box of tapes.
The new Bryan Ferry album sounds exactly like a Bryan Ferry album. That’s kind of the point.
Again, not so much with the big hit singles ready for chart domination. But a more sophisticated moving on up the ladder. I was a bit leery of MGMT at first – they have been such hipster darlings and what’s cool isn’t cool. But hey, guess what! They’ve only gotten smarter, and more melodic with relative age. And anyone who writes a rapturous ode to Brian Eno (Brian Eno) gets mega super bonus cool points. Apropos of god knows what, but the more I listen to this album the more I suspect these boys may have, at some point listened to the works of the Brothers Mael. I don’t know why I think that…
It’s been a long cold winter since the last Lady Gaga record came out and you’re needing something to fill the void. You need some dancefloor crazy, euphoric, slightly guilty pure sugary rush of pop music. See, bubblegum doesn’t have to suck. Sometimes the purest sugary fluff is just what the doctor ordered. As far as fluffy pop songs go, too, Robyn’s are surprisingly thoughtful, at least sometimes. How many times have you heard the words ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ while grinding it out on the floor? That’s what I thought.
The new Sade album sounds just like…a new Sade album. Not unlike Ferry, Sade has found the sound that works and she’s polished and perfected it over the years. So what if every Sade album sounds the same. There aren’t that many of them to go around. Her eponymous band works like a smooth operating machine, the lady’s voice still sounds like sex and honey, and she hasn’t aged a day. She’s still writing inscrutable love songs. Still showing the young girls how it’s done.
I’ve decided I do quite like the new, marginally modernized Duffy. She’s strayed across the street from her regular crystal ball evocation of sixties Stax girl-group-iness, adding exciting elements like faster tempos. So maybe Endlessly isn’t the glossy beast the first album was, but it’s ok, it’s still fun. I’m waiting with baited breath for some Disney executive to have a Eureka moment and ask Duffy to voice some singing cartoon frog princess. She’s got a cartoony voice, does she not? She even looks a bit like a sassy cartoon kitty. You know what would be cool? A Duffy musical cartoon series. She’d definitely be a kitty, and it would be set in the swinging sixties and she’d ride a Vespa, and sing and solve crimes.
Sharon Jones is keeping old-school r’n’b music alive. Not that dumb crap they file under r’n’b nowadays. None of them ‘guest raps’ here. If the best part of your song is a sample from someone else’s song, that’s cheating. None of that here. No drum machines, either. Absolutely none of that damn auto-tune. Real musicians don’t need those props. Sharon and the Dap-Kings belong at the top of the top of the pops, real soul music should be topping the forty, but the world isn’t fair like that, and that’s what Sharon Jones is talking about.