Monday, April 16, 2007
There has been little posted here of late, mainly because of it being an unseasonably warm 27 degrees here - you'd stay away from your computer too - but I now have some time to catch up. I've been meaning to pen something about Amy Winehouse for a while, because I had avoided her music for far too long, partly because of fatigue at all the tabloid stories surrounding her drinking and so on, partly because I was sure that she was going to be yet another example of well-bred coffee-table soul, à la Norah Jones or Joss Stone, the sort that is strategically groomed for consumption by three-CD-a-year-man or woman. Seeing the video for 'Rehab' on YouTube wasn't too ominous either, with its lazy retro styling, the usual slapdash kitsch packaging given to mainstream soul music by the braying asses of the music industry. A sure-fire way of killing off interest among those that might be into it.
A couple of friends of mine persuaded me to give 'Back to Black' a go and after a couple of listens waiting for the catch, I acknowledged that it was not bad at all. I'm still waiting for the catch too. Winehouse is best known for her outstanding voice, which is like a contemporary female version of Stevie Winwood's, another white Londoner whose voice could allow him to pass for Black American. Soul is one of those things that has long been neglected by the music industry - perhaps because it sounds irreducibly dated, and the trade feels that it can only be marketed by resort to gimicky window dressing such as the 'Rehab' video. While there has been no shortage of good soul around these past few years, much of it, such as D'Angelo, Angie Stone, JackSoul, Quantic and the resurrected Sharon Jones has been more derivative of funk or smooth 70s soul rather than the more raucous, raunchy 60s variety. Even music hacks are similarly inept at dealing with soul; I have seen Winehouse repeatedly compared to Aretha Franklin, a no-brain allusion as anyone with an ear for soul knows that Aretha was a gospel singer. Winehouse is more like other, more peripheral female soul singers of the era, such as Bettye LaVette, Betty Davis and Doris Troy, and she also takes a certain dose of the insouciance of the Queen of Rock Steady, the Jamaican Phyllis Dillon, though Winehouse is a heavier, deeper vocalist.
The stand-out tracks on the album are the title track, the Northern Soul throwback 'Tears Dry on their Own', and 'Me and Mr Jones' - a sly nod to the Billy Paul classic and apparently about Winehouse's fling with the rapper Nas. If Winehouse's perfect pitch and pendulous tones and her sarky, dirty lyrics are the spine of the album, then one must also give credit to the arrangements and production of Mark Ronson, who coats the recording with a sound that sounds at first smooth, until after a few listens the extra layers reveal themselves. It's a long time since a soul record with this much exposure sounded so fresh and so expert.
Winehouse also appears on Ronson's own album 'Version', a producer's album of cover versions of an eclectic mix of songs by a motley crew of artists. Her own version of the Zutons' 'Valerie' is another track that wouldn't have sounded out of place at the Twisted Wheel, and it has almost instantly rendered redundant the original. There is also Lily Allen - she too of the Ronson stable - finding surprisingly interesting things in the Kaiser Chiefs' 'Oh, my God'. Most fun is offered by the late Ol' Dirty Bastard, twisting Britney Spears' 'Toxic' within an inch of its life, while Robbie Williams has a decent stab at the Charlatans' 'The Only One I Know' (though the drowning out of his vocals shows a momentary failure of nerve on Ronson's part), and Phantom Planet's cover of 'Just' reminds you of what good songwriting often gets lost in Thom Yorke's dreariness. There are many that dislike Ronson - the Arctic Monkeys and a horde of humourless Smiths fans are among the latest - and it may be that he has little other than a barrage of hackneyed funk licks, hammond loops and muted brass to paper up an inherent conservatism, but for the moment 'Version' and the work he has been doing with both Winehouse and Lily Allen is sufficient unto the day.