...to my mate Des, whilst enduring the Arsenal's pitiful capitulation to West Ham yesterday:
"Buy the new Amy Winehouse album!"
And not because she looked as sassy as a Ronette fresh from a mussed-hair bedroom-romp on the Jools Holland show either (although she did, and I suppose it does no harm...) No, it's an excellent LP. I had to revise my opinion of La Winehouse (on first coming across her, I thought someone had rather carelessly missed the first 'h' out of her name) considerably, assuming that the massive hype generated by her first LP and her having been to one of those awful pop college places all but guaranteed her 15 minutes of fame would quickly fade back to rightful obscurity and Tesco night shifts once she stood exposed as the talentless fraudster I suspected her to be. Well, stap me vitals with a chrome pitchfork if I haven't had to eat shovels full of humble pie and recant copiously and publicly now that her true pop genius (and, to quote Brian Epstein) not unconsiderable personal charms have been revealed. It all started when I heard the first few seconds of Back to Black's opener, the retro-soul stomper, 'Rehab'. "Ah", I sighed, "an instant classic. Someone with an enormous depth of talent is behind this. What an excellent record... I know my onions etc. etc." Of course, there was no turning back when the culprit was revealed as none other than my erstwhile pop nemesis. I know when I'm beaten...
Anyroad, it really is a cracking album. Someone (and I suspect it is AW herself -that's Amy Winehouse, not Arsene "gerroff Pardew" Wenger, btw....) has been listening to an awful lot of very fine records. The opener namechecks Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway for a kick off, whilst every succeeding track bears echoes of at least one classic. In a fine example, the title track starts like The Supremes' 'Baby Love' and fades out like a gloomily appropriate Shadow Morton production. I heard echoes of Billy Stewart's 'I do Love You', and Brook Benton's 'A Rainy Night in Georgia' too, but with the possible exception of the track which utilises the backing track of 'Ain't no Mountain High Enough' wholesale, every reference and sly nod is made for dramatic effect rather than to tick a box. The beautifully understated 'Love is a Losing Game', brilliantly uses a glass vocal booth effect reminiscent of Dusty in Memphis to lend Winehouse's mournful lead a nose-pressed-up-against-the-shop-window little girl lost fragility that notches the track up from the realm of the stately to that of the sublime.
But for all that, it's no pointless re-hash the classics exercise, there's substance here - much of it provided by the subject matter - Winehouse's struggle with alcohol dependency and candidly detailed amorata. But it's the voice that's really grown up. There's an assurance to many of her performances and a freedom from the usual, as Elvis Costello once described them, soul cliches of much contemporary R&B vocal styling. Indeed for someone like me, an old fogey who equates those two letters more with Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin than Usher and Christine Aquillera et al., it's a treat to hear such 'old-fashioned' production techniques and song structures put to such expressive use. There's a lack of fuss here that suggests that she may even go on to become more yet than the very good, very cool stylist she already is. Even those Billie Hollidayisms she hasn't been able to shed have a loving exactitude that is forgiveable given the focus she shows elsewhere. "What kind of fuckery is this?" Amy asks. I dunno love, but it sure sounds good.
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