Album Review: Sharon Jones Says Farewell With ‘Soul of a Woman’

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Sharon Jones in 2009. The soul singer sounds powerful on “Soul of a Woman,” even though she recorded the album while battling cancer. Credit Jacob Blickenstaff

Sharon Jones sounds anything but fragile on “Soul of a Woman,” the last album she recorded before her death in 2016 of pancreatic cancer. She wails, she shouts, she rasps, she exhorts, she fills phrases with teasing curlicues and holds pure tones endlessly aloft. She went back on tour and recorded the album after extensive cancer treatment, during a period of remission and as the disease returned, but her voice and songs stay bold, gutsy and down-to-earth.

Ms. Jones was a soul singer in a classic and now disappearing mold: born and raised in the South (Georgia and South Carolina), growing up singing in church and listening to James Brown and Aretha Franklin, coming north (to Brooklyn), and earning an unglamorous living until, in the 1990s, she found her way to the soul revivalists who would became her backing band, the Dap-Kings. The band got a daredevil vocalist and unstoppable frontwoman; she got songwriters and musicians who had reverse-engineered their beloved 1960s soul, funk and R&B to play new songs on vintage equipment.

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“Soul of a Woman” is the last album Sharon Jones recorded before her death in 2016. Credit Daptone Records, via Associated Press

“Soul of a Woman” is a final set of genre-perfect old-school soul: brisk rumba-soul in “Sail On,” hand-clapping neo-Motown in “Rumors,” a girl-group slow dance topped with hovering strings in “When I Saw Your Face.” The band sounds as if it’s playing live in the studio, each instrument in a fixed place — usually drums on the left, organ on the right — with its grooves seasoned by years of playing together, its horn section taking pride in every unanimous note.

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – “Matter of Time” Video by DaptoneRecords

After the opener, “Matter of Time,” insists that peace and justice will eventually prevail, the album’s songs largely stick to everyday life and love. (Ms. Jones’s own autobiographical manifesto, “I’m Still Here,” was on the soundtrack to the 2016 documentary, “Miss Sharon Jones!”) The patiently bluesy “Just Give Me Your Time” is a plea for a reunion; she’s not even asking for honesty or repentance, just togetherness, even if she knows it will cause her pain later. “Girl (You Got to Forgive Him),” a torchy melodrama, advises offering a guy a second chance: “Are you gonna let all the little things/Get in the way of a good loving man?” Not that she’s always lenient; in “Sail On,” she refuses to take in someone who once turned her away.

What these songs say is vastly eclipsed by how they are sung. “Ohhhhhhhhh no!” are the words that open “Sail On,” four times in four angry, disgusted, irritated, dismissive ways, and in those seconds it’s already obvious that all doors are shut. The getting-over-it message of “These Tears (No Longer for You)” is clearly belied by the breath and breaks and scratchiness in her voice. Ms. Jones summoned all her expressive power for this album, with all the strength, longing, hurt and improvisational command that were still hers.

The album’s closer isn’t from Ms. Jones’s final sessions, but it’s a rightful capstone to her musical life. It’s “Call on God,” a gospel song she wrote in the 1970s for E.L. Fields’ Gospel Wonders, the choir she sang with for decades at the Universal Church of God in New York. She recorded her song, singing as she played piano, with the Dap-Kings in 2007. They held it back from their album at the time, with the idea that Ms. Jones should record an entire gospel record. Alas, she never did.

After singing at her memorial service, friends from the Gospel Wonders completed the 2007 track by adding some churchy background vocals, a last offering of harmony while Ms. Jones soars. Ms. Jones’s voice sails into each note and holds it proudly, often adding a vibrato flourish as it sustains; she’s secure in pitch, in melody, in faith. Her song promises comfort after sorrow and God’s support in time of need, and then envisions the time when she’ll “share His love to eternity.” It’s the return to where her music began.

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