Dec. 11th, 2011

I went to the mall yesterday, and while I was on my way out, I passed through a record store. They had the new Amy Winehouse album, Lioness: Hidden Treasures. Only $10. Sold.

The album itself isn't terrible, and there are good parts to it. However, as is typical of posthumous collections that are mostly assembled in post-production by people that are not the singer, as well as collections of one-offs, b-sides, covers of old standards of such, and as is also typical of albums that span from the beginning of an artist's mainstream career to the end of it (2003-ish to 2011,) it is of uneven and sometimes dubious quality. The producers have been careful to emphasize that this is not the followup to Back to Black, with good reason.

This is a track-by-track review intended for the discerning Amy Winehouse fan, with history and context inserted where I know it.

Track listing:

1. Our Day Will Come
2. Between the Cheats
3. Tears Dry (original version of Tears Dry On Their Own from the Back to Black album)
4. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?
5. Like Smoke (featuring Nas)
6. Valerie
7. The Girl From Ipanema
8. Half Time
9. Wake Up Alone (original version of Wake Up Alone from the Back to Black album)
10. Best Friends, Right?
11. Body and Soul (with Tony Bennett)
12. A Song For You

The album itself starts with the old Motown-era standard, Our Day Will Come. I've never been a huge fan of the song, but I grew up listening to Motown and the music of that era is music I'm by and large familiar with, so I was excited as I popped the CD in on my way home from the mall.

In this one song, the main problem with the album became immediately clear. First off, lyrics aside, I'd heard this song before, except it sounded way better as the version listeners of the Back to Black album will know it as- the song Just Friends. The cognitive dissonance threatens to drag you under, it completely ruins the song for me. Amy's in fine voice here, that isn't the problem. The problem is the song itself. The song, like most of the songs on this album, do not fit her. They're ordinary. Pedestrian. It's like she's singing muzak- often technically astute, but devoid of any sort of emotional depth. This is the single biggest flaw of the album, because the entire reason I listen to Amy Winehouse is for her nimble handling of dense, heavy, deep emotions, and that is lacking here.

It isn't that Amy Winehouse can't do covers- she does Valerie nicely. It isn't that she can't do old standards- Teach Me Tonight from the deluxe version of her 2003 album Frank is amazing. I can't pin it down (the problem may lie in post-production, it does in at least one other song on the album) but it doesn't fit well. Songs on other Amy Winehouse albums are Amy Winehouse songs, songs she made hers. Songs like Our Day Will Come are just songs that Amy Winehouse sang once. One belongs on albums, one really, really doesn't.

Next, the second track, a song titled Between the Cheats, another song that doesn't belong on an Amy Winehouse album. Like a few other songs on this record, the lyrics are ridiculous/often nigh unintelligible and the title itself feels like an overwrought attempt to be clever, both things that are really beneath her. Cognitive dissonance rides again- there's something here that for some reason reminds me of Christmas music, which I am not a big fan of and that really doesn't compliment the material. There's something weird with her voice here, too. Another glossy throwaway, no emotional depth whatsoever. One of the worst songs on the album.

Our 3rd track is Tears Dry, the original version of Tears Dry On Their Own, the song from her Back to Black album. I was rather looking forward to hearing it, as it is one of my favorite Amy Winehouse songs. (The Back to Black version is okay, but the version she did on Jools Holland is leagues better.)

This version is a lot slower. It's easier to pick out lyrics, something I sometimes have trouble with when it comes to music, but the lyrics don't fit seamlessly into the music like with the original, it's hard to explain textually but you hear it immediately upon listening, or at least I did. It's heavier, there is at least some depth here, but like other tracks on this record it seems to lack subtlety, and you sense it right at the beginning of the song with the 5 big, heavy notes before the lyrics begin. (Like other tracks on this record, that may be a post-production thing; I can't tell.) There's a lot of stretching words out to stay in time, a lot of extraneous lyrical detail. She's in fine voice here, but it just doesn't fit together well.

Track number four is Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, and I'm puzzled with this one because professional reviewers tended to regard this one positively and I just don't see it. This is another one that isn't an Amy Winehouse song, just a song she once sang, and the really shit thing about it is that it didn't have to be that way- the failure here is in post-production. It doesn't even sound like an Any Winehouse song.

First, the production is too lush, there's too much here. There's elements here that don't fit- there's strings, horns, drums, backup singers, and at least some of that needs to go because there isn't room for her voice for really step out of the traffic and distinguish itself. Ella Fitzgerald had this problem back when she was singing with Jazz at the Philharmonic in the 40s and/or early 50s, there was too much orchestral traffic to weave through for Ella to really cut loose. Too many elements in the song, too vocally confining. Second, the horns, the drums, the building music, all that injects way too much drama into a song that has innate drama of its own, and the song can't support it. It's too much.

You take some of these elements away, and you have something. Amy was in good voice here, and you can hear a bit of what it could have been. It would be a fine production for another artist or group, but it doesn't sound like or fit with actual Amy Winehouse songs in that the production is too lush, too orchestrated- the best actual Amy Winehouse songs are the ones where the music and the vocals fit together, but the music stays in the background. It doesn't here. That's why it doesn't sound like and can never actually be an Amy Winehouse song.

That brings us to track 5, the Amy Winehouse/Nas duet named Like Smoke. I'm torn on this one, and I still don't know what to think of it.

I first heard this on Pandora while packing up my old apartment, and at first I was was dismayed to see she teamed up with a rapper, because except for a scant few songs, I absolutely detest rap. Except for country, there is nothing that will pull me out of a song faster. I can't relate to it, and there is almost none of the emotional depth I need to be able to really enjoy a song.

This is one of the few songs on the album that actually does sound like an Amy Winehouse song, and despite myself, I really liked the sound of the song, even though I could readily hear that the flaws were being covered by careful post-production. Confirming my earlier suspicions, I have since read that the song was only halfway written, and I suppose post-production had to fill in the rest.

For the most part, they did a good job with what they had, but I don't know that I would call this an Amy Winehouse song because it feels more like a vehicle for Nas, and on that level it fails like almost all rap does for me because it again feels overwrought, unsubtle, and the lyrics themselves are stupid. They flow well on a surface level but upon detailed listening they're mediocre at best, and mediocrity belongs nowhere near Amy Winehouse music. Still, all flaws aside, this is one of the very few songs from this album that will go into my mental "canonical Amy Winehouse" category.

Next up is one that I imagine most Amy Winehouse fans are familiar with- Valerie! What a breath of fresh air. I don't have one bad thing to say about it. She's in fine voice, it does absolutely sound like an Amy Winehouse song while managing not to sound identical to versions she's done before, and is very listenable. Enjoyable :)

Valerie segues into The Girl From Ipanema, a version I think I remember reading that comes from 2003, which is when Frank was released, and it does sound like a Frank-era Amy Winehouse song. Unlike other versions I've heard, there's a bit of a dark note in it, and it plays well, feels completely appropriate. At first listen the orchestration may seem to be too busy because the drum part is mixed into the forefront to be just as present as Amy's voice, but unlike with Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? it is just one element, so Amy's voice can really shine, and it is very appropriate here. I love the song itself, but there are good and bad versions and this is a good, fresh one. With the exception of Fuck Me Pumps, Frank was a jazzy album and this track would not have been out of place on it. An enjoyable listen. Well done.

Next up on the hit parade is a song named Half Time. It does sound like an Amy Winehouse song to me, though I feel the lyrics are inferior and not up to her usual standard. There isn't much substance to it, but I have a feeling that with a different artist who doesn't normally carry emotional depth and for who unimpressive lyrics are the norm, it might go over a lot better. Still, not bad.

After that is Wake Up Alone, the original version of the song by the same title found on the Back to Black album. Like Tears Dry, it is a slower version. It does sound like an Amy Winehouse song, I feel like it wouldn't have been out of place in a live concert, like the Live At The Concorde, Brighton songs found on the deluxe version of Frank. It feels very much like a song you listen to at night, for some reason... maybe the sparse guitar. I feel like the later version is better, but this certainly isn't bad. I think it would've been interesting to include on Back to Black as a bonus for comparison, kinda' like the thing with Fiona Apple and Tymps, but I can see why she didn't. Still. Good stuff.

From those heights, we descend into the mess that is Best Friends, Right? What a bad song! Stupid, hateful lyrics that are wholly beneath her as a singer set to a peppy, jazzy background that I really liked until I heard the lyrics. I don't know if this supposed to be some sort of attempt at humor, or if this is supposed to be some sort of ironic social commentary akin to Ella Fitzgerald's Yellow Man, but whatever the hell this is supposed to be it doesn't work. Excreble. One of the worst songs on the album.

Track 11 is Body and Soul, the duet with Tony Bennett.

Body and Soul is hard listening. Not for technical reasons, the production level is what it needs to be, and Tony Bennett sounds good here, it's hard to believe he's 85 years old. Body and Soul is hard listening for me not necessarily because it is audibly late-vintage Amy Winehouse, the track is from this year, that isn't the problem. The problem is that on this track Amy Winehouse, who throughout her career spun her voice like taffy just like Sarah Vaughan did, sounds like Billie Holiday did on the Lady in Satin album right before she died, so much so that I winced. It's hard to explain it if you've never heard the Lady in Satin album, and those unfamiliar with the parallels will likely think nothing of it, but once you do the parallels are unmistakable.

Thematically, the last track of the album, A Song For You, is the same- the two taken together are just as from-the-grave as Lady of Satin is. With uneven vocals that sometimes soar but are often mumbled, it isn't just hard listening, it's painful listening. It sounds like they tried to clean it up as best they could in post-production, but you still often can't hear or discern the lyrics. It shouldn't have been released, and I feel its inclusion here to be a deliberate play to affect your emotions, as is the inclusion at the end of it of Amy talking about Marvin Gaye and saying "He just couldn't contain himself. He had something in him, you know?" Could they have been more obvious?


I would not characterize the album as a complete failure, and I don't believe it to be a waste of money, though I wouldn't pay much more than I did for it. There are good parts to it- The Girl From Ipanema is good listening, and so is Valerie. Wake Up Alone is an interesting take on the better known version. Like Smoke and Half Time aren't bad to listen to if you don't analyze the lyrics. Body and Soul is solid, and a good listen for the uninitiate, or those oblivious to/willing to overlook the undercurrents and parallels.

The talent is there, evident in all tracks. Like smoke, however, it is often elusive.

Mostly, I'm going to pretend this never happened. The album taken as a whole is not a flattering addition to her body of work, and I don't wish to remember her this way.



September 2012


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