Amy Winehouse - Back to Black (2007)

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    Need a soundtrack for spring's long walks, dusty cleaning or blue evenings clutching the bottle over the seasonal love lost? I've got the perfect album for you. The eleven-tracks on Amy Winehouse's Back to Black do everything you need a soul album to do. In her U.S. debut, the twenty-three year old tabloid sensation and former child musical prodigy from Enfield, England, has also birthed this year's first real contender for Grammy Album of the Year.

    Need a soundtrack for spring's long walks, dusty cleaning or blue evenings clutching the bottle over the seasonal love lost? I've got the perfect album for you. The eleven-tracks on Amy Winehouse's Back to Black do everything you need a soul album to do. In her U.S. debut, the twenty-three year old tabloid sensation and former child musical prodigy from Enfield, England, has also birthed this year's first real contender for Grammy Album of the Year.

    Back to Black is a raunchy, bawdy ode to everything beautiful about blues and soul music. Its singer is unabashedly honest, vocally astonishing, technically brilliant, powerful and yet still restrained. Hit makers, Salaam Remi and Marc Ronson's respective productions on Black recapture the melodramatic wall of sound made popular in the 1960s absent any pop artificialness. There isn't one track on Black that isn't musically sound and interesting. The angelic, harmonically compact "ooos" and "ahhs" backing Winehouse with requisite girl group sweetness are gorgeous and-given Amy's two-fisted, NC-17 lyrics-simultaneously bordering on satire. Despite the Muscle Shoals-like horns and orchestral arrangements, the contemporary Black musically moves the soul-pop genre forward while throwing that touching look over its shoulder.

    Music aside, it's the steely-eyed, achingly human content that keeps Back to Black from becoming Christina Aguilera's similar but uneven homage, Back to Basics. With Black's raw subject matters and explicit lyrical content, one almost wants to say Black is hip hop and soul, rather than blues and soul. With attitude to spare, Amy deftly interpolates her jazz training with syncopated rap phrasing on most of Black. Sex, drug and alcohol reference's drizzle track after track. I guess it's to be expected from the UK's real life Courtney Love. With Amy, a confessed alcoholic who "suffers" from eating disorders and manic depression, this listener couldn't help wonder at which near London slum Winehouse obtained her pomp and swagger. This white girl is indisputably at home with the ghetto-fabulous Ghostface Killah on her first single, "You Know I'm No Good". When Amy protests going to "Rehab" on her exuberant follow-up single, you never doubt that this child is singing her life.

    Black isn't all fisticuffs. The blues here is less bitter and jazzy than on her award-winning UK debut, the spare break-up album, Frank (Island). Still, Amy returns with heartbreaking ballads in spades, "Wake Up Alone," the insta-classic "Love Is A Losing Game" and the devastating title track all show Amy's intimacy with love and loss. Gratefully, she doesn't dwell in the cold, dark place in which you've landed at the end of the title track. Up-tempo tunes like "Rehab" and "Tears Dry on Their Own" have Winehouse practically kicking her heels while conversely singing her pain with a defiant, biting humor.

    Since Black's stateside debut, I've already heard some haters charge Winehouse with cultural appropriation for her vocal styling's evident Black soul and jazz inspirations. Theirs is an erroneous rush to judgment. On Back to Black, Amy's phrasing does occasionally echo more classic Lauryn Hill and early Sarah Vaughn, but you also hear a cockney accent and a host of other artists melded into a distinctive, unique voice all Amy's own. The tattooed newcomer has managed something earnest belters Anastasia, Joss Stone and Aguilera-women worthy of said charges-haven't discerned in their quest for soul. The inspiration is in the honesty not the runs.

    By L. Michael Gipson

     
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