Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
Soul Of A Woman
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
It’s no fluke that the concept of “time” plays a part in Sharon Jones’ final studio album. After all, she knew there wasn’t much of it left while recording these 11 songs with her long time Dap-Kings backing band. The pancreatic cancer the singer had been battling for years, a fight documented in the film Miss Sharon Jones!, finally caught up with her on December 18, 2016, but not before she laid down most of the material for this, her last release.
Album producer and Dap-Kings bassist Bosco Mann had to capture these performances in fits and starts depending on Jones’ health. But the final product proves that even in a weakened state, the singer remained more powerful and committed than most in better shape can muster. The opening “A Matter of Time,” a song about racial unity, finds Jones belting out a typically ferocious, high-energy soul burner as horns and Binky Griptite’s jazzy guitar lines push the song into overdrive. She jumps back to the ’60s for a Latin groove on the thumping “Rumors” and cranks out the raucous soul/rock of “Sail On!”, with all the force and passion of a singer a third her age (she was 60 at the time).
But the appropriately titled Soul Of A Woman (perhaps inspired by Bobby “Blue” Bland’s or Blind Willie Johnson’s similarly named tunes) also displays the lighter side of Jones. About half the selections have the singer mining more subtle, softer material; some, such as the ballad “These Tears (No Longer for You),” are enhanced by sumptuous strings, backing vocals and orchestration. On the lovely, stripped-down “Pass Me By,” Mann drops the horns as Jones tackles a low-key R&B gem that would fit just fine on Dusty in Memphis.
It might have been reasonable for Jones to include some covers, but instead these are freshly written originals, most penned by various members of the Dap-Kings specifically for her. There are clear retro references both in the organic instrumentation and the arrangements, yet this is no exercise in nostalgia. Rather we hear a singer and her long-time band reveling in the music and sounds that inspired them, from the smoother, more orchestrated approach of Philadelphia to the tough-as-leather Memphis/Stax attack. The gospel “Call on God” (the only Jones written track is resurrected from a 2007 session where she also displays her piano talents), closes the proceedings on a fittingly somber yet hopeful note.
There’s a natural critical tendency to treat an artist’s final statement with extra sensitivity due to the circumstances surrounding those recordings. But Soul Of A Woman stands proudly on its own and would be equally as impressive if Jones was still alive, shimmering and butt-shaking her way across stages like in her prime. It’s not just a rousing bookend to a remarkable, late-starting career, but a terrific and moving soul explosion that stands as one of the finest in her limited yet extraordinary catalog.