Artist: Amy Winehouse
Album: Back to Black
Comments: Amy Winehouse is a paradox.
On the one hand, she is very modern. Winehouse is very much in control of her own music. Her strong voice commands every song with the confidence of someone who knows she can belt it out with the best of them. Her subject matter, getting drunk, getting heartbroken, and looking for comfort in the earthly garden of physical pleasures (and ultimately, finding those pleasures to be hollow), is normally reserved for the men of rock and roll, not the women of pop. It’s very feminist in her brash self-damaging empowerment.
On the flip side, Winehouse can’t get herself out of the 50s. The backdrop for her stories of low self esteem and booze fueled mistakes is the golden era Motown sound. Despite some very modern hip hop influenced drumming, the horns, bass lines, and keyboards are all classic soul. These two things, the modern stories of morning after regrets coupled with the classic sound of the Supremes or Aretha Franklin, is the main appeal of Back to Black; she makes music for the modern fuckup with classic tastes.
I have to confess, I didn’t like Winehouse when I first heard her, and I had no intention of giving this record a good review. The reason for this is the video for her lead single and thematic mission statement “You Know I’m No Good”, which features Winehouse in a bathtub, at a b, and drinking on the floor of a kitchen. I have no problem with this, but I do have a problem with her poor choice in facial accessories; she’s got this big ass lip stud, and for reasons I cannot fathom, it bothers the fuck out of me.
But once I got over my own absurdity and listened to the album, I was pleasantly surprised. Winehouse has got some really good pipes, so much so that she is able to pull off what many pop stars have tried and failed to do; she is able to pay a fitting tribute to the pop stars of the past. A big complaint about modern pop is that the people who make it can’t really sing. This is not the case with Winehouse, her voice is as strong and unique as the ones she pays tribute to. On tracks like “Rehab” she belts out with defiance and confidence, while on “Love is a Losing Game” and the excellent “Back to Black” she is able to show restraint and emotion in her singing. Her vocal control is impressive.
The album is not without its limitations, however. Winehouse is a lovesick puppy, and that is really all she sings about, giving the record a definite theme at best, and a one track mind at worst. And there is a really shitty use of the song Ike and Tina Turner made famous (Ain’t no Mountain High Enough). Also, because Amy is mining classic production, songs tend to run together, and there really isn’t much room for musical growth. In other words, I don’t think Winehouse has got enough to talk about, or enough to back her up, for a second album. But that’s a bridge she’ll have to cross some other time. For right now, for what it is, Back to Black is a better-than-average pop record with a darker-than-average subject matter that is both refreshing and charming in its direct nostalgia.
Forget tomorrow, put on some soul, and make some mistakes.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Key Tracks: You Know I’m No Good, Back to Black,
Worth The Money: Yes, but be aware of what you are getting; an album of modern songs that sound classic by design, not through their own merit.