Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, "I Learned the Hard Way" (Daptone)
A thrillingly dynamic live act, Jones & the Dap-Kings have made their most fully realized album. But be forewarned: It lacks the kind of exciting up-tempo funk that is the hallmark of their stage shows. This fourth album is about crafting vintage-sounding soul tunes that are mostly about love gone wrong. The songs are packed with drama, emotion and terrific horn arrangements. The Dap-Kings, led by bassist/producer/songwriter Bosco Mann, pay tribute to Stax, Volt and even Motown -- with a little "I Put a Spell on You" mystery sprinkled in. Jones, who is like a female James Brown onstage, proves here that she can sing with seething subtlety. She is an intimate vocalist letting you in on her inner turmoil.
"She Ain't a Child No More" swirls with a bluesy spirituality. "Money" finds a nasty slow-funk groove. "Without a Heart" sounds like a peppy, pumping Motown classic. Jones goes girl group on "Mama Don't Like My Man," and she sounds conflictedly devoted on "I'll Still Be True" as she's smothered in horn-charged darkness.
Even though "Hard Way" is teeming with medium- and down-tempo material, it will add some gems to this Brooklyn band's stage repertoire. Jones & the Dap-Kings will perform June 19 at Rock the Garden at Walker Art Center.
JON BREAM, Star Tribune
Willie Nelson, "Country Music" (Rounder)
Produced by T Bone Burnett, this is an often robust disc that flaunts Nelson's versatility. There are songs about mortality and dark spirituals ("Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down"), but also plenty of mischievous moments ("Drinking Champagne") and a song about a train.
Plenty of recent Nelson albums have felt distant and phoned-in. Here, though, his voice uncharacteristically has barely a hint of lethargy. As a result the soft country waltzes -- delivered by a crack band that includes Buddy Miller on guitar, ex-Minnesotan Russell Pahl on pedal steel and Jim Lauderdale on backup vocals -- become richer and more surprising.
Nelson is testing himself after years of progressive rust accumulation. This album is not as strained as much of the material he has released in the past decade. In part, that's because the music doesn't shy away from maturity, with Nelson tackling songs for which age is an asset, not a liability. His "Satisfied Mind" is an argument against frivolity: "Money can't buy your youth when you're old/or a friend when you're lonely/or a love that's grown cold."
Nelson sings Oct. 8-9 at Mystic Lake Casino.
JON CARAMANICA, NEW YORK TIMES