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Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings rule a musical revival

Sharon Jones

Belting out such lyrics as “I can’t have my cake and eat it too, so I gonna get up and walk out on you,” funk-soul luminary Sharon Jones sounds like anything but a goody two-shoes. But like many divas before her, she was an angel when she discovered her pipes.

“I was somewhere between 5 and 8 years old when I played an angel at church, an itty-bitty angel with wings and a halo over my head,” she recalls. “One time we did ‘Silent Night,’ and a lady at church said, ‘Ooh-ooh, that little girl can sing.’ That’s where it all began.”

After struggling for recognition for years, Jones traded in the halo for a crown in her late 30s. While doing a set of background vocals for ’70s soul superstar Lee Fields about 13 years ago, she recorded a rap on top of a song called “Switchblade,” which became a favorite among deep-funk DJs in the United Kingdom. Though her voice on the track was slowed down to sound like a man’s, music industry bigwigs found out who she was and she soon found herself opening for Maceo Parker in London.

“So here I am, singing in London, and the next thing you know, someone asks me if I know who the Queen of Funk is,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know, who?’ and they were like, ‘It’s you!’ Turns out a magazine there called Big Daddy had gone and given me the name.”

Jones’ career blossomed after joining forces with The Dap-Kings, the house band for the Daptone Records label. The band’s old-school funk and soul sounds recall James Brown and Otis Redding and are the secret weapon on recent albums by Amy Winehouse and Kanye West.

Meanwhile, with Jones, The Dap-Kings have revamped Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” as a ’60s-style funk jam and brought life to classics such as “How Do I Let a Good Man Down?” and “How Long Do I Have to Wait for You?” The group’s latest recording, 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights, burrows deep into the tradition of late-’60s soul, especially Motown.

Jones says the soulful U-turn doesn’t make her or the band any less funky; if anything, it makes them more true to their roots — and their musical gifts.

“We’ve made it this far because we stuck with what we believe in, whether it’s James Brown, Tina Turner, Aretha or Otis,” she says. “I’ve always been able to imitate these people, but no one had to teach me how to sing soul. That was all me.”

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Matthew Dear is a musical shape-shifter

In the world of electronic music, Matthew Dear is known for making sharp-edged Detroit house and other dance-floor dazzle under three monikers: Audion, False and Jabberjaw.

Yet when Dear records under his real name, anything goes. While his first full-length album, 2003’s Leave Luck to Heaven, revolved around minimalist techno masterpieces, he’s been emphasizing his songwriting skills over his DJing and production talents as of late. Black City, his newest release, ranges from funky, synthy, vocal-driven pop to dark, house-inspired dance-rock. Plus, he performs it with a live band, not a computer.

I recently spoke with Dear about the album, the live show and his curious collection of appellations.

How do you keep your many identities straight?

In the past, having different names and identities was just a way to get music out there. The identity I used was a reflection of what I was feeling that day in the studio. If I was feeling like a weird, minimal techno song, I’d have that come out under an alias. It was a way of organizing the many different types of music flooding out of me at that time.

I think you surprised a lot of fans by starting a band and becoming its front man. Why did you decide to go that direction with your live act?

I didn’t want to go onstage with a laptop and microphone and rehash the synthetics of an album. A live performance deserves more in terms of presentation, so now I have a trumpet player and a synthesizer player. [A band] gives the music more life onstage, and it’s more engaging for me to have to remix and rethink what the songs can be.

What surprised you most about Black City after you finished it?

When I compared it to [2007’s] Asa Breed, I was like, “Wow, this is so much darker and slower. Why did everything get so dark all of a sudden?” I was pretty happy with that, and I think it became darker and slower because I was concentrating a bit more on the nuances than before.

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Justin Townes Earle loves George Michael

Though he’s named after outlaw country legend Townes Van Zandt and is the son of the genre’s current torchbearer Steve Earle, Justin Townes Earle doesn’t lurk in their shadows. His new album, Midnight at the Movies, a melancholy journey from one corner of the Americana landscape to another, might be the most critically praised album of 2009, earning near-perfect marks from Paste, Mojo and Rolling Stone.

I spoke with him last week as he geared up for Bloodshot Records’ Beer-B-Q. The sold-out show sizzles the High Noon’s stage Aug. 22.

Justin Townes Earle

What are you looking forward to most about the Beer-B-Q?

Getting together with some good folks and catching my breath. I tour so much that I don’t get to see a lot of other Bloodshot artists, so this’ll be a good chance to catch up.

Are you a big barbecue fan offstage?

Not really. I do like barbecue, but I don’t like being behind the barbecue. I know so many people who are better at it than me.

Tell me about the process of making Midnight at the Movies.

It had only been seven months since I released The Good Life, and I had been on tour all year, so we blew through this one like a whirlwind. I played a show the night before we started recording it and had to leave twice during recording to play shows, so it was a huge relief to sit on my ass for a little while.

You’ve been pretty open about having your own fall from grace — a drug habit — when you were younger. How has getting clean shaped your approach to music making?

I was a raging heroin addict for most of my life, but there’s something so personal about it that even as someone who’s admittedly a “personal” songwriter, it’s not for the whole world to know about. I did my best to make sure the process of getting clean didn’t have an impact on my music.

You list the Pogues as an influence. What do you like best about them?

Shane MacGowan is one of the best songwriters around: His use of imagery is fantastic, and I’ve liked If I Should Fall From Grace With God for a really long time.

What’s another musician you consider an influence but that your fans might not expect?

George Michael. His Faith record is one of the best there is, and “Faith” is an amazing rock song.

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Joe Pug went from playwright to tunesmith

Joe Pug

Considering how many 20-somethings still live under their parents’ roofs, it’s easy to laugh at the notion of a quarter-life crisis. However, for 23-year-old folk musician Joe Pug, existential angst is no joke. Plus, it struck before he was old enough to work it out over a beer.

“I remember sitting down for a cup of coffee and thinking, ‘I am profoundly unhappy here,'” he says of his experience at the University of North Carolina, where, until recently, he was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in playwriting. Within weeks of this realization, he made his way to Chicago, got work as a carpenter and began composing songs.

By nearly all accounts, the shift from playwriting to songwriting has been a success: Pug’s lyrics have garnered praise for getting audiences to slow down and think — really think — amidst the hyperactive multitasking that’s so difficult to avoid if you have an iPhone, a Blackberry or even a simple e-mail account. This quality stems in part from a commitment to old-fashioned, pen-and-paper songwriting techniques and a focus on human problems that are pretty timeless: greed, loneliness and the passage of time.

Pug says playwriting allowed him to explore these themes, but the medium didn’t fit his message the way he’d hoped.

“I looked at some of the plays the people around me were writing and felt that I could never write those kinds of plays. Eventually I realized that what I was doing should take a different form,” he says.

To start, Pug took an outline for a play he was writing and restructured its ideas into lyrical stories much like those that launched the careers of John Prine and Bob Dylan. He set these poems to music, added a minimalist guitar track, and an EP called Nation of Heat soon emerged.

With lyrics like “I say the more I buy, the more I’m bought / And the more I’m bought, the less I cost,” the EP quickly caught the attention of the Chicago’s roots-music community, as well as the producers of NPR’s Second Stage program, who featured his song “Hymn #101” in October.

Meanwhile, Pug’s been touring the country, opening for Rhett Miller’s East Coast gigs earlier this month and the BoDeans’ Dec. 26 show at the Barrymore.

He’s also turned an unfortunate twist of fate — a pink slip at the carpentry job — into a music-making opportunity, using his time between shows to prepare material for a new full-length album.

In fact, realizing how many people have been laid off of late, he’s decided to offer free copies of three of his songs on his website, as well as a sampler disc to those who e-mail nationofheat@gmail.com.

“It’s been great getting the word out,” he says. “I hope I can stay laid off for the rest of my life.”

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The Handsome Family’s gothic country gets romantic

Few bands have been able to infuse Americana music with a sense of the sublime quite like the husband-and-wife duo the Handsome Family. Channeling the witty verve of Edward Gorey, Rennie Sparks’ story-poems, set to Brett Sparks’ melodies and baritone voice, speak of burying the dead, reveries in psychiatric wards and mysterious signs of comfort from nature.

The Handsome Family

Isthmus recently spoke with Rennie Sparks about the band’s enigmatic moniker, its new album, Honey Moon, and Santa Claus’ evil twin.

What are the origins of the band’s name?

We used to be in this other guy’s band, and he’d call Brett handsome all the time. Then, Brett’s parents, when we got married, got us this subscription to Reader’s Digest, and when it arrived, the name on the label said “Handsome Spjinki.” Everyone started calling him that, and the band grew out of it.

Many of your songs tap into the fantastic tradition of English and Scandinavian murder ballads, and you’ve mentioned in interviews that you were brought up believing Santa is a pretty evil guy. Has this led to any songs about the Krampus, the demonic Santa?

I have a friend from Finland who says Santa’s clothing is made out of reindeer skins soaked in blood, and I’ve heard that in Holland he’s got black slaves carrying the presents instead of reindeer, so he’s definitely got a dark side.

My parents were brought up as religious Jews in a time where kids their age were being thrown into the oven for being Jewish, so they tried to keep us blissfully ignorant of holidays and things like Santa. My mother once told me that Santa Claus started World War II, and though I don’t think he’s a bad person anymore, I haven’t written about him.

There’s a death theme running through many of your lyrics, but not so much on Honey Moon. What’s up with that?

This record is more about love. I’ve always wanted to write a whole record of love songs, but it’s trickier to write about the transcendent rather than the abyss. When you hear a great love song — not a sappy, trite one — it can change you a little bit. We’d been listening to a lot of Platters and Mills Brothers, so that got us thinking about romanticism even more than love, and all the heightened emotions and connections to nature that go along with it.