Monday, April 7, 2008

Peak: Fever in the funk house, Pt. 3 - Back to Black

Or: How I fill up 2 GB on my iPod

(Being the continuing alphabetical series of the contents of my 2 GB iPod. Previous entries include Duane Allman Anthology and Appetite for Destruction)

Album title: Back to Black
Artist: Amy Winehouse
Released: 2006
Track listing:
1. Rehab
2. You Know I'm No Good
3. Me & Mr. Jones
4. Just Friends
5. Back to Black
6. Love is a Losing Game
7. Tears Dry on Their Own
8. Wake Up Alone
9. Some Unholy War
10. He Can Only Hold Her
11. Addicted (UK Bonus Track) review:
The story of Back to Black is one in which celebrity and the potential of commercial success threaten to ruin Amy Winehouse, since the same insouciance and playfulness that made her sound so special when she debuted could easily have been whitewashed right out of existence for this breakout record. (That fact may help to explain why fans were so scared by press allegations that Winehouse had deliberately lost weight in order to present a slimmer appearance.) Although Back to Black does see her deserting jazz and wholly embracing contemporary R&B, all the best parts of her musical character emerge intact, and actually, are all the better for the transformation from jazz vocalist to soul siren. With producer Salaam Remi returning from Frank, plus the welcome addition of Mark Ronson (fresh off successes producing for Christina Aguilera and Robbie Williams), Back to Black has a similar sound to Frank but much more flair and spark to it. Winehouse was inspired by girl group soul of the '60s, and fortunately Ronson and Remi are two of the most facile and organic R&B producers active. (They certainly know how to evoke the era too; Remi's "Tears Dry on Their Own" is a sparkling homage to the Motown chestnut "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and Ronson summons a host of Brill Building touchstones on his tracks.) As before, Winehouse writes all of the songs from her experiences, most of which involve the occasionally riotous and often bittersweet vagaries of love. Also in similar fashion to Frank, her eye for details and her way of relating them are delightful. She states her case against "Rehab" on the knockout first single with some great lines: "They tried to make me go to rehab I won't go go go, I'd rather be at home with Ray" (Charles, that is). As often as not, though, the songs on Back to Black are universal, songs that anyone, even Joss Stone, could take to the top of the charts, such as "Love Is a Losing Game" or the title song ("We only said good bye with words, I died a hundred times/ You go back to her, and I go back to black"). [The U.K. edition included "Addicted," an extra track that didn't appear on the U.S. version.]

The best "new" artist of the past five years? I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a candidate who exceeds the accomplishments contained on Back on Black, the breakthrough (but not debut) album from British songstress Amy Winehouse. I can admit it: I first became intrigued by Winehouse when I heard a snippet of "Rehab" during a commercial break on MTV. That's what the music on Music Television is relegated to these days: 45-second musical commercials highlighting a different band every week. I heard Winehouse sing that mesmerizing chant/chorus "Try to make me go to rehab/I said 'no, no, no'" and I was hooked almost instantly. I decided that song was reason enough to acquire the album; anything beyond would be bonus.

Well, it was certainly bonus time the day I downloaded Back to Black. Rather than a one-trick pony with all her eggs in the "Rehab" basket, Winehouse turned out to be a talented singer/songwriter with more than enough soul to cover for all of 2007 (when the album was released in the US). Back to Black is wonderfully eclectic yet linked enough to demonstrate that Winehouse has accomplished a goal that few new artists are able to achieve:

In 11 tracks, she establishes a sound so unique that it becomes instantly recognizable as her own. By the time you’re finished with the album, you find yourself to be cognizant of certain ticks in each track that immediately remind you of Amy Winehouse, even if you’re listening to Back to Black for the first time.

Really, it’s all good on this album: the opening power of “Rehab;” the no-less-strong follow-up of “You Know I’m No Good” with its shameful drums and horns; the cleverness of “Me & Mr. Jones,” where Winehouse introduces the term ‘fuckery’ into the vernacular; the tambourine-driven impending pain-caused relapse of the title track; and then there’s tracks like “Love is a Losing Game,” “Tears Dry on Their Own,” “Wake Up Alone,” and “He Can Only Hold Her,” classic super-throwbacks that improve upon, rather than merely imitate, the clear inspiration.

It’s hard to pick a single highlight off Back to Black, since so many tunes stick are exceptional. So I’ll just stick with the big single. Dig the horns and the hand claps; as a matter of fact, when you listen to it, only pay attention to what’s happening behind Winehouse. Without that arrangement, the song borders on stupid rebellion; with the arrangement, it becomes a neo-R&B/soul/groove anthem.

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