REVIEW: Amy Winehouse, Back to Black, Universal

Posted March 28th, 2007 by eric

It does seem like there’s a rash of foul-mouthed British pop singers storming our shores lately. Well, ok, two. That’s not quite a storm. But Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse have kicked up enough press in the wakes of their respective US releases of proven overseas hits to make it seem like one.

Winehouse is clearly the darker of the two. Allen is a pop singer with a smart mouth. Winehouse is the one who really is probably a handful to deal with. Her drunken performance of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” with Charlotte Church is already the stuff of YouTube legend. She’s too skinny, drinks too much, has no respect for her elders (just ask Bono), and doesn’t give an ass what anyone thinks. So, yeah, pretty much a bad ass. Oh, and she can sing.

Winehouse’s music is obviously indebted to ‘60’s soul pop, girl groups, and Phil Spector. It’s not so much an aping as it is a retro-fitted renewal, thanks to clever production by Mark Ronson (Macy Gray, Ghostface Killah). Winehouse name-checks her idols with lyrics that would sound awkward and silly if sung by anyone else. But her voice just bleeds authentic soul, even when she utters nonsense like “what kind of fuckery is this?”

Winehouse wrote “Rehab” (hands down, one of the most infectious singles of the year) accidentally. She was walking down the street in Soho with Ronson, talking about how her managers and her friends wanted her to go to rehab for her very public bouts of drinking, and she literally started riffing the opening line: “they tried to make me go to rehab and I said, no, no, no.” Ronson knew the hook was gold, so he asked her whose song it was. Winehouse responded: “I just wrote it off the top of my head. I was just joking.” That sentiment sort of encapsulates the record; it feels that spontaneous.

Winehouse’s lyrical acumen is not exactly poetic, but she’s witty and clever, if a bit crude. It’s a strange sensation to appreciate music that my mother would probably be into, if it weren’t for lines about “keeping his dick wet.” But that’s Winehouse’s schtick. Yeah, she’s got the voice of a big black woman, and her music is easy enough to swallow, but she laces it with her dysfunctional love life. If she didn’t say “fuck” so much, she’d be on VH-1.

The title track is the album’s real showpiece. Winehouse’s voice can be devastatingly real, especially when she hits the “back to black” line. She could tear up some Shirley Bassey. And I’ve told everyone who will listen that she should be tapped to sing the next James Bond theme. She’s got such control, and her voice evokes all the mystery and backstabbing and sexual deviance a good Bond film should.

Back to Black isn’t supposed to be anything more than pop music. Winehouse isn’t going for Joni Mitchell level artistry. She’s just singing about her fucked up love life with a voice that makes it matter.

Tags: album-review