- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2007

‘Back to Black’

Amy Winehouse

Island Records

British songstress Amy Winehouse has an unfortunate surname, given her penchant for drinking, which seems to have occupied almost as many inches of newspaper copy as her music in recent months.

Perhaps she’s brought it upon herself; after all, she did write a song called “Rehab” and release it as the lead single to her new “Back to Black” album. Not just a creative ditty in which she toys with the idea, the tune was inspired by real-life events.

As the story goes: Miss Winehouse’s management approached her last year to request that she receive treatment for substance abuse, to which she responded by jumping ship and penning a tune about it that not only cracked the Top 10 in the U.K. but helped her win the 2007 Brit Award for best British female solo artist.

She’s more than sassy although that is certainly one of her assets.

Another major one is her voice: a big, belting, whisky-tinged wail that channels Ruth Brown and seems completely incongruous with her tiny, olive-skinned figure.

If the artist’s pipes are a weapon, her lyrics are the firepower, spewing out uncensored ammunition about wimpy men, busted love and sexy shoes.

Whereas her debut album, 2003’s platinum-selling “Frank,” floated by with relatively spare jazz-pop instrumentation that gave a nod to hip-hop with its boom-bap drums, “Black” relies on a fuller sound-scape that draws largely from ‘50s and ‘60s soul and pop. It plays like an old diner’s jukebox that’s lyrically been “all shook-up,” making it possible for doo-wop to include contemporary slang, adult themes and even a few expletives.

Unlike her earlier endeavor, Miss Winehouse’s recent mash-ups resemble the work of a sort-of female John Legend (she even uses the same Richard and Robert Poindexter sample he has on his latest disc) but a lot more tortured and mouthy.

“Rehab” is the album’s obvious standout, with catchy horn hooks and a tongue-in-cheek take on what fuels an artist. The chanteuse croons, “I’d rather be at home with Ray/I ain’t got 70 days/’Cause there’s nothing, there’s nothing you can teach me/That I can’t learn from Mr. Hathaway.”

Is she setting a bad example with details of her self-destruction? Maybe. But all that musicology she’s been studying in lieu of being on lockdown has clearly amounted to some major innovative music like the James Brown-posturing “You Know I’m No Good” (it just needs a “huh” or a “get back”) or the Billy Paul-response “Me & Mr Jones.”

One of the true gems from “Black” borrows a sunny little reggae bounce to tell the story of two people whose temptation keeps getting in the way of being “Just Friends.” It’s the same kind of juxtaposition that fellow Brit Lily Allen likes to use, where the tune’s darkness is cloaked in melodic warmth. (Interestingly enough, although Miss Allen’s previous collaborator, producer Mark Ronson, joined hip-hop pro Salaam Remi in Miss Winehouse’s production booth this time, this is not one of his tracks.)

“Tears Dry on Their Own,” on the other hand, sounds cheery with its “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” sample, and actually is more or less. Sure, it’s about a bad breakup, but unlike in other tracks, her “tears dry on their own.”

Some listeners may miss “Frank” and “his” low-keyness; he was a bit quirkier, more jazz and hip-hop-infused, yet subtler somehow. “Black’s” sha-la-la is certainly a bigger, more dominant sound that may start to sound slightly repetitive.

But maybe the noise has to get louder to drown out the gossipmongers and naysayers (and the headaches).

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