Amy Winehouse: A 'Frank' Assessment

By Bill Friskics-Warren
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Amy Winehouse's 2003 debut, "Frank," was a U.K.-only release that came out back before all the hue and cry over her boozing and drugging, and all the critical acclaim for her follow-up album, "Back to Black." Now released stateside, "Frank" more than confirms what the fuss over Winehouse -- then just 19 and with a lot fewer tattoos -- was originally all about. The record doesn't contain anything as indelible as this year's hit single "Rehab," but as tracks like the libidinous "Amy Amy Amy" attest, her attitude and command were already there. And then some.

"Masculine, within his spell/I think he'd wear me well," Winehouse purrs, ogling a hunky guy while a background trio offers a tsk-tsking chorus of "Amy Amy Amy," as if to say, "Don't go there, girl." In "[Expletive] Me Pumps," Winehouse consoles a burned-out party girl who's pushing 30 and losing her looks. "At least your breasts cost more than hers," she says, sizing up one of the woman's rivals, her torchy burr reminiscent of a young Dinah Washington.

The singer establishes a jazzy tone from the outset with a scatting intro followed by "Stronger Than Me," a mid-tempo workout hooked by slinky beats, cool horns and swinging, Wes Montgomery-style guitar. Sultry ballads and shambling neo-soul jams make up most of the program, with the occasional Latin-tinged chord progression or reggae horn arrangement to lift things out of a straight nouveau-cabaret bag.

Winehouse uses a lot of melisma on the album, maybe even overdoing it in spots, but there's no denying her phrasing and delivery, which are remarkably assured for a singer in her teens. She even has the chutzpah to tackle Billie Holiday's "There Is No Greater Love," a languorous ballad sweetened by empathetic sax, flute and piano. Another chestnut, "Moody's Mood for Love," has seen everyone from King Pleasure to Aretha Franklin put their stamp on it, but Winehouse handles it beautifully, adding bebop flourishes and effortlessly gliding from one register to another.

The beats and tempos on the album aren't as inventive as those on this year's hip-hop-inflected "Back to Black," and producer Salaam Remi's heavy reliance on rimshots sometimes makes Winehouse sound a little like an Erykah Badu manque. That said, with its atmospheric keyboards, skittering break beats and Hubert Laws-inspired flute, "In My Bed" clearly anticipates the urban backdrops of her breakthrough album. Not to be missed here is her scatting call-and-response with tenor player Vincent Henry on the vamp, in which it's tough to say what sounds more saxlike, Henry's horn or Winehouse's coarse-toned glossolalia.

"What Is It About Men," meanwhile, boasts a cameo from the great reggae guitarist Earl "Chinna" Smith, and on the breezy "October Song," a boppish lullaby of Bird land, Winehouse gives a shout-out to Sarah Vaughan. Earlier, on the smoldering kiss-off "Take the Box," she plays the bruised tough girl to the hilt. "Mr. False Pretense, you don't make no sense/I just don't know you/But you make me cry," she sings to a haunting organ and piano exchange, lines that could just as easily be turned around and applied to Winehouse's outsize foibles and gifts.

DOWNLOAD THESE: "In My Bed," "Take the Box," "Amy Amy Amy"

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