Previous Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings albums have gotten by on the concept—a raw soul singer backed by a band of cratediggers—and the passion and precision with which they executed it. Because they’re record fans, the Dap-Kings perform an appealing slight of hand, assembling soul tunes from parts that were separated by years and miles, patching together a Stax horn line with Willie Mitchell’s drums and Motown vocals on one song, then the Muscle Shoals rhythm part and a Lee Allen sax part for another. That it all comes off as organic is a tribute to their affection for their influences and their attention to detail. The albums’ strength was also their weakness, though. The songs sounded like the third or fourth-best songs on albums by soul greats; you loved the voice, loved the groove, loved the vague familiarity, but you loved other songs more.
On I Learned the Hard Way, the songwriting takes a giant step forward. The songs are more melodic, which gives Jones more to work with, though by the end of “Give it Back,” she channels Otis Redding in an outro that’s an exercise in rhythm. On “The Game Gets Old” and throughout the album, the songs immerse you in Jones’ world of love and heartbreak (with more of the latter) instead of nodding toward the ones that inspired them. The improved songwriting makes any quibbles about retroness irrelevant; I Learned the Hard Way would have been as good a soul album in 1968 and it’s a good one today.