That Winehouse Buzz? Believe It
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Some singers have whiskey-soaked voices. Amy Winehouse has a whiskey-soaked oeuvre.
"They tried to make me go to rehab / I said, 'No, no, no,' " the British soulstress sings at the outset of her marvelous new album, "Back to Black." A punchy single with shimmering, '60s-style girl-group production flourishes, "Rehab" tells of Winehouse's refusal to heed a former manager's sobering advice. "I always keep a bottle near," she belts.
Booze is to Winehouse's music and public persona what sex is to R. Kelly's. Her drunken behavior has become the stuff of tabloid legend -- at least in England, where Winehouse has been a star since her 2003 debut, "Frank." (The album was never released stateside.) No story about her is complete without noting that affinity for alcohol. Not since Dean Martin has liquor been such a career gold mine. Only in her case, it's Cuervo Gold.
On "Just Friends," a jaunty ska-soul song that boils over with sexual tension, Winehouse (her real name, by the way) observes: "It's never safe for us / Not even in the evening, 'cause I've been drinking." On the bereft "Wake Up Alone," she notes a minor victory: "At least I'm not drinkin'." And then there's the video for "Back to Black's" remorseful new single, "You Know I'm No Good," in which she clutches a shot glass as if it's a safety blanket.
But Winehouse isn't just some bar singer with an easily packaged back story. She's one of the most exciting newish arrivals on the post-millennial R&B scene -- a 23-year-old artist with a knack for writing blunt, confessional relationship songs that are full of ache, attitude and humor. (Think Lily Allen with soul, or Corinne Bailey Rae with musical teeth.) On "Me and Mr. Jones," Winehouse repeatedly uses a hilarious-sounding expletive to scold a no-good man. Among his transgressions? "You made me miss the Slick Rick gig," she hisses, sounding downright indignant.
And then there are those fierce, powerhouse vocals: so raw, so deeply emotional, so real -- sort of Mary J. Blige without the chronic pitch problems, although Winehouse's tone is more reminiscent of Billie Holiday's or Shirley Bassey's. Winehouse has an exceptional voice that's even more striking when you catch a glimpse of its source: a wispy, heavily tattooed young Jewish woman with a mile-high beehive for a hairdo and a Gothic level of mascara caked onto her face. It almost doesn't compute.
While her look screams Hot Topic, Winehouse's music recalls two cultural factories from the past, Motown and Brill Building. "Back to Black" -- a No. 1 album in England, where it was released last year -- features knockout production work by Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, who've concocted an alluring wall of sound that suggests Phil Spector working with the Funk Brothers in Hitsville's Studio A. ("Tears Dry on Their Own" even interpolates Ashford and Simpson's Motown classic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough.")
It's sassy, swinging music that's heavy on echo effects, swelling orchestration, multilayered harmonies and brassy punctuation. But Remi and Ronson are hardly strict musical traditionalists, using a drum machine to add a splash of modernity to hits such as "Rehab" and "You Know I'm No Good."
Just as it's done back home, where Winehouse won the Brit Award for best British female solo artist, that classic-contemporary mix is starting to turn heads in America. As well it should: "Back to Black" is downright intoxicating. In fact, you might not hear a more thrilling or rewarding R&B album this year.
So here's to you, Amy. Cheers!
DOWNLOAD THESE: "Rehab," "You Know I'm No Good," "Back to Black"