I have to admit the thought of a Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings holiday album made me happy. I knew I’d probably like It’s a Holiday Soul Party, the group’s first album to follow 2014’s Grammy-nominated Give The People What They Want, but in the beginning I wasn’t exactly sure why, except that Jones tends to deliver glad tidings in whatever she does.
I figured here I’d again enjoy Jones’ immense vocal talent, simultaneously fierce and vulnerable, which in all her work with the Dap-Kings is the hearth of the songs, drawing listeners to its crackling glow. It can channel the most exuberant joy as it can heartache, the voice of an artist who not only survived industry insults to “look more white,” but cancer too, and never lost the urge to keep singing. And accompanying her, not least of all, would be the familar, deep R&B grooves of the Dap-Kings, whose retro vibes recall the best of Motown.
All of this has proved true, but what became most apparent among the album’s 11 tracks is something not normally attributed to the label-appeasing yet usually lackluster “holiday album:” a high-five for holiday music and another solid entry for the group itself. While carrying on the bell-jingled tradition of Bing Crosby and Mariah Carey (like it or not, already playing/streaming on a radio near you), It’s a Holiday Soul Party contributes something more original to the songbook: a much-needed, soul-injected blast of funk.
For proof, look no further than opening track “8 Days (of Hanukkah),” which riffs on themes from the traditional child’s song “I Have a Little Dreidel” and finds Jones as soulful as ever, capping the lyric “my dreidel I will play” with the firey shout-out “talking-about-that-Menor-aaaah!” It’s notable, too, that Jones chose to lead the album with this song, one that makes it clear from the very beginning this holiday soul party is all-inclusive. (This idea is reiterated in the lyrics of second to last song, “World of Love,” with: “Whether you’re agnostic, Muslim, Christian, or Jew/The children of the world/They depending on you.”)
Deeper in, the band fervently channels the “Where’s the party at?” energy of the holidays, giving traditionally sleepy “White Christmas” a funk makeover as a booty-shaking, gospel-tinged R&B anthem. “Funky Little Drummer Boy” gets a similar treatment, as does “Silver Bells,” which soon advances from Jones accompanied solely on piano to a rhythm and blues burner (one where you can almost see Jones cheerfully shopping over “city sidewalks,” pumpkin spice latte in hand).
Approaching this album with the same festive spirit as the rest of their releases, covers aren’t obligatory, they’re joyful. Even in what might be considered its most grim offering, “Aint No Chimneys in the Projects,” there’s still a sense of magic and ingenuity. Around a sultry sax medley that toys with “Jingle Bells,” mom explains to inquiring young Jones that “Santa Claus does magic things/As soon as you’re asleep, a chimney will appear, and in the morning you will see all he brings/Don’t you worry that there ain’t no chimneys in the projects.”
As a whole, of its six originals and five covers, Soul Party sounds more like an organic, original creation than anything from the mind of Irving Berlin. You can sing along to some of them, sure, but really you should grab your favorite dance partner and boogie down. In Jones’ world, the holidays aren’t so much about tradition as they are about love and fuzzy feelings, and there’s enough of that here to get you clear through the holidays, and beyond.