Sharon Jones’s latest, Give the People What They Want might’ve been her last: Initially announced last May, the release of her then-completed fifth studio album was put on hold while the 57-year-old singer battled cancer. Now she’s back, and in defiant, fighting form. Leading with a foreboding Spaghetti western flourish of tubular bells, “Retreat!” is her fieriest, feistiest song yet: “Taking you apart is my kinda fun/Count to three and then you better run,” she warns an errant suitor. The brass behind her blast an R&B equivalent of baroque pop, acknowledging that classic soul was at times ornate — check Smokey Robinson, psychedelic-era Temptations and Isaac Hayes for evidence — and proves that operatic and roots-y aren’t mutually exclusive modes.
Give the People doesn’t veer drastically from its predecessors; nothing here suggests life after Watergate. Jones, in particular, is nearly the last of her kind. When she roars, her sweet ‘n’ savory rasp hits the notes in a way that post-boomers raised on Whitney, Mariah or even Mary J. simply don’t anymore. And the arrangements are faster and more concise than they have been in the past, more in the tradition of what the Brits call Northern Soul; “Now I See” evokes the amphetamine rush of “Tainted Love” — the 1965 Gloria Jones original, not Soft Cell’s more familiar remake.
Meanwhile, Jones’s background singers — the key to vintage R&B’s crucial communal vibe — have never dazzled brighter than on “Making Up and Breaking Up,” a particularly exacting rendering of Brenda & the Tabulations’ delicate Philly soul. And her Dap-Kings also rise to the occasion, matching Jones’s sass with swing, high spirits, and ample sweat: Their preservation act may be precise, but it’s never less than fully alive.