Since so few acts in the new millennium attempt the old-school soul that’s the specialty of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, it may be easy to assume that they’re heralded simply because of their rarity: although they certainly sound like plenty of acts from back then, they’re praised because nobody else sounds like them now, something that’s all well and good but doesn’t quite suggest how good the group really is. I Learned the Hard Way, their fourth album, goes a long way in illustrating that they’re very, very good, holding their own with all the ‘60s Southern and Northern soul they hold so dear. In fact, the striking thing about the album is that contrary to their deep soul rep, Jones & the Dap Kings spend just as much time riding smooth easy grooves as they do pouring out some sweat: despite its tough title, “I Learned the Hard Way” breezes with the cool assurance of Curtis Mayfield’s Windy City and the instrumental “The Reason” shimmers like the sound of Philadelphia circa 1969. A large part of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings charm is that they mix up these regional styles, blending them into a ‘60s soul fantasia, but they also favor recordings that sound like the ’60s: there’s air and grit within the grooves of I Learned the Hard Way that gives it an authentic kick. Of course, all this would be surface charm if the group didn’t deliver songs, and they do -- songs that swagger and stir the soul, fitting within tradition without being beholden to it, songs that prove that Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings are the real deal.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine