Here's a name you probably don't recognize: Gabriel Roth. He's a Brooklyn-based architect who works under the decidedly funkier alias Bosco Mann. Roth's structures — deep but bright with ample natural light — are auditory, set in analog foundations, inhabited by revelers of authentic late-'60s soul and the deep funk that followed. Roth's studio-lair and imprint, Dap Tone Records, is responsible for those "vintage" infusions on Amy Winehouse's 2006 breakout LP, Back to Black, as well as for the live and recorded sounds of New York funkies Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, the Budos Band, Sugarman Three, the Daktaris, the Mighty Imperials, and the most pained voice in soul today — Lee Fields. Whether they even know it or not, such recent retro-soul vocalists as Raphael Saadiq, Maxwell and Jamie Lidell have been influenced by Roth and his stable of talent.
But Roth's most brilliant work has always been with his label's house band, the Dap Kings, when they're backing the cool yet commanding swoon of Sharon Jones — today's leading lady of soul. And the proof is especially strong on I Learned the Hard Way, Jones & the Dap Kings' fourth record in six years. While Sharon will continue to receive international praise — as her voice is stronger and more interesting than any other voice on Billboard's Top 10 R&B Chart (Rihanna, Alica Keys, Usher) — Hard Way is very much producer Roth's record. The production here is absolutely flawless; it's his best yet: The sound is authentic, the arrangements are stunning, and Bosco's bass holds it all down, like Donald "Duck" Dunn or David Hood before him.
Hard Way is also the group's lushest, slowest and most evolved record to date, evident from note one. The music is a sonic thread held together with sweeping strings and stinging horns that provide a cinematic feel and might perhaps be best experienced in your car driving, especially within Detroit city limits. And although it doesn't detract at all from the whole, Hard Way offers more soul and noticeably less funk than its predecessors. Also more apparent on this release are the dynamic female backing vocals. Those songs sometimes sound as attitudinal as the Staples Singers, with Sharon filling in adeptly for Mavis, but delivered more akin to "the Motown sound" in that they're tight and vibrant, in direct contrast to the instrumentation which is thick and fertile.
I Learned the Hard Way contains several would-be hits, including the dramatic opener "The Game Gets Old," a funky woman-scorned anthem in "Better Things," the super-groovy "She Ain't a Child No More," and the slow jamming "I'll Still Be True." Every one of those tracks would all surely chart — in 1968.
Tuesday, May 18, at the Majestic Theatre, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700. With The Heavy and Detroit Funk Night DJ Frank Raines.
Travis R. Wright is culture and arts editor of Metro Times. Write to Travis R. Wright at metrotimes.com.