Losing Sharon Jones to cancer in 2016 felt particularly unfair. Jones didn’t breakthrough until she was in her mid-40s when Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings launched Daptone Records and played a pivotal role in the retro-soul movement. Jones’ vocal talent was immediately clear, but the extra something in all her performances elevated her music. She brought a particularly personal force into her work, whether on record or in her remarkable revue-style live shows, which often included bringing audience members on stage. Jones’ passing seemed to take an extra piece of vitality from the world, so getting a new collection of music comes as a particular treat.
Just Dropped in to See What Condition My Rendition Was In collects 13 covers performed Jones and the Dap-Kings. A number of these tracks were previously available, but gathering them together and the unreleased recordings make for an enjoyable experience, contextualizing some of Jones’s influences while displaying the specific twists that she and her band could bring to the music. “This Land Is Your Land” (available digitally only) felt like a mission statement when the group put it out 15 years ago, and it feels no less valuable now. The Dap-Kings bring a deep groove to Woody Guthrie’s classic, driving the urgency and highlighting the tune’s political frustrations. What served as a notice then serves as a reminder now: this is a musical act to be reckoned with.
Some of the other album highlights likewise put surprising touches on well-known songs. Using a classic R&B sound, Jones’ take on Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately” puts more kinetic energy into the Jam & Lewis song. Prince’s “Take Me with U” becomes something else entirely, Jones getting inside the original song only to take it in her own direction. In these renditions, both cuts sound more like Dap-King throwbacks rather than the acclaimed originals. With an entire disc like that, Just Dropped In feels more like a proper album than a wandering roundup.
Of course, several of the tracks make more sense and offer fewer surprises. They aren’t necessarily less fun, but they are less noteworthy. The record opens with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”, originally recorded by Jones for a TV commercial, and the band plays it close to the original. Early Wonder provides perfect material for the Dap-Kings, but they don’t sound properly unleashed here; the cut sounds like practice material for them. Likewise the performance of “Rescue Me” fits into a long line of similar versions. Jones sings it well, obviously, and it’s a great song, but on a record with such stunning moments, this one feels almost perfunctory.
Even at “perfunctory”, Jones and the Dap-Kings stand above their field, though, and fortunately, this compilation has very few of those moments. “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”, for example, allows Jones to take off on a song that would otherwise tend too far toward coolness. That approach suits her and her ever-tight band much better than simply recreating classics. Jones and the Dap-Kings always brought joy and energy to their music and while they were memorable songwriters, hearing them cut loose on these covers lets us appreciate the verve with which they approached their art in any setting.