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In the summer and fall of 2009, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings recorded their fourth album, I Learned the Hard Way, at their studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Daptone operates its own studio (The House of Soul), has its own label staff, oversees much of its own design and marketing and records mostly on a vintage Ampex 8-track tape machine. Recording, performing, songwriting and arranging is all done in house, with the core instrumental backing of the Dap-Kings rhythm and horn sections, plus a string section ("The Bushwick Philharmonic"), orchestral percussion and backing vocals filled in by Jones herself.
As alter ego Bosco Mann, Daptone co-owner and Dap-Kings bassist Gabriel Roth is at the center of the album's creation, overseeing the recording console and operation of the Apex 8-track tape machine, adjusting lead sheets, working out harmonies on the piano and keeping things on track with a low-key yet assured diplomacy.
To an observer sitting on the floor of the studio during the proceeding, it doesn't really seem like much is happening. The rhythm section plays through a mid-tempo chord progression, the guitars plunking out arpeggios. However, after repeated visits to the studios for different sessions on the same songs, the parts come together, layer after layer. Wayne Gordon keeps tabs on the unused tracks on a chalkboard near the Ampex, and a complex matrix of parts gets filled in bit by bit, like a sonic crossword puzzle.
Jones' presence at the studio is more extemporaneous. During vocal sessions, she hangs out in the dark and cozy booth adjacent to the control room, sometimes nipping on some whiskey to keep her voice warmed up. She provides a good counterpoint to Roth's methodical planning, ad-libbing vocal harmonies and accompaniment while hanging in the studio and making bubbly, rambling chit-chat with whoever is within earshot. Jones feels her way through her time in the studio, and her instincts inspire a fresh edge to the music.
The Dap-King horns, composed of core members Neal Sugarman (Daptone co-owner), Dave Guy and Ian Hendrickson-Smith, largely create their parts themselves after the bulk of the recording has been done. After years of performing together, they instinctively work out the harmonies and phrases that lay on top of everything below it. Treading back and forth from the live room to the control room, they adjust their parts and approach until it all fits.
I Learned the Hard Way is the most sonically varied and ambitious recording to come from Daptone Records. Gabriel Roth, with the talented support of Sharon Jones and his bandmates, has poured his energy into making an R&B album that serves as his statement about how records should be made.