Naturally is the second studio album by soul-revival combo Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, a band whose style is a nod to classic 60s and 70s soul, funk, and R&B. The band formed in 1996 and are spearheads of a revivalist movement which aims to bring the classic soul sound of that period to a more modern audience, and my word do they succeed at this mission.
I discovered Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings quite by accident when I was listening to student radio here in Auckland and one of their tracks came on. My immediate reaction to put it simply was wow! Who is this amazing singer, what is this sound? This prompted me to do some research, leading me to dive into their back catalog, a move that ultimately led me to this album Naturally. There’s swing, there’s swagger, there’s plenty of soul, while R&B and funk make their presence felt in many of the arrangements, arrangements that often include a full horn section just like it was back in the day at the likes of Stax records and FAME studios. The Dap-Kings rock as a band and are clearly pros at what they do, with their sound and obviously their name taking influence from the classic soul bands of the period whose music they play, think the Booker T & the MGs, think the Funk Brothers, think the Mar-Keys. And then there’s the women herself, Sharon Jones, the face of the band, the leader of the group and the amazing singer and frontwoman that steers the ship and holds everything together. Her voice is quite simply stunning on all of the tracks on here and my word she does justice to a style that is fifty years old. Aside from the great playing by the Dap-Kings, Jones is the reason anyone into soul music or even just good singing should pick up this album and take a listen. It is also briefly worth noting how the band in recording this album decided to shun modern day digital recording technology and instead decided to use more traditional analog recording equipment. The result is a real earthy, lo-fi sounding record, something which I feel is highly appropriate for the music they are playing and it really comes across nicely on the record.
Which brings me to the songs themselves. The album kicks off with a killer track “How do I let a Good Man Down?”, a song that is very Motown-esque sounding with a stellar vocal from Jones, some sizzling guitar, and some popping horns. A standout track straight off the bat and a great way to kick things off. Things follow on nicely with “Natural Born Lover”, a song that has more of a contemporary R&B flavour and is quite laid back, while “Stranded in Your Love” is a slower track that has an Otis Redding feel to it and includes a little spoken word section with Jones and guest vocalist Lee Fields to start it off. Things get back in the groove with “My Man Is a Mean Man”, a track which showcases some pretty groovy bass playing in the James Jamerson style, while “You’re Gonna Get It” is a slow ballad, which although contains some nice singing tends to labor a bit. “How Long Do I Have to Wait for You” is a breezy soul number which on first listen drew comparisons with some of New Zealand’s very own modern soul songstresses namely Aradhna and Ladi6. I feel now having listened to the album a couple of times that it is on these more up-tempo soul numbers where Jones is at her best vocally and really shines. As we get into the back end of the album, Jones attempts the one and only cover on the record, a version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”, all be it a soul take on this folk classic. Her version is completely unlike the original and you wouldn’t even know it was a cover, which is a good thing as it clearly shows she has made it her own and is not simply imitating what is a very recognisable song in its own right. The album finally winds down with the funky Stax-sounding “Your Thing is a Drag”, the bizarrely titled blues number “Fish in the Dish”, and album closer “All Over Again” which is a soothing soulful way to go out on.
Overall, this is a fine record with the only real gripe I have being how some of the song-writing which can go astray at times. Sharon and the band do a fantastic job in paying homage to what is one of the greatest styles of music in history from one of the greatest periods in music and are uncompromising in applying their own contemporary but retro take on soul, funk, and R&B. Having listened to a couple of their other records now, I feel you could pick any one of them and enjoy it, no one album really stands out from the rest. At times some of the material does come across as a bit repetitive or laborious, but this does not by any stretch take away from the amazing music of this group, a group who I definitely recommend you check out.