Once in a great while an artist comes along that makes you sit up and listen. And not a tap your foot, nod your head listen to some flash in the pan artist who's destined for obscurity - but something that stirs the soul a little and makes you happy that music is capable of evoking such sentiment.
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Often pushing the limits of sobriety, Winehouse is a teetering mess with beehive hairdo and charcoal eyeliner. Her looks belie the voice that escapes when Winehouse sings. Hers is a honeyed, rich and soulful voice that calls to mind Jazz greats like Etta James and Sara Vaughn, Motown divas like Diana Ross, as well as contemporaries like Lauryn Hill.
Born into a family of Jazz musicians, it's no surprise that Winehouse's second album (her first, Frank (a record company driven project), Winehouse regards with much disdain) Back To Black is a serious mash-up of Jazz, Reggae, R&B, Soul, Pop and Hip-Hop. And while many artists try to achieve this and fail, Back To Black does it with aplomb.
At 23, it's almost comical to think that someone who's not even lived for a quarter century is tackling what Winehouse is. The album's lead single "Rehab" is a defiant declaration of her own resistance to go to, well, rehab. With a glossy horn section and a jingling piano, "Rehab" is one of Back To Black's finest moments because it is tongue in cheek and yet autobiographical.
The album listens almost like the personal diary of someone who might be in need of an intervention and perhaps a hug. I suppose like an other 23 year-old Winehouse has experienced her own brand of suffocating heartache that provides fodder for much of the album. On "Love Is A Losing Game", the forlorn Winehouse sings "For you I was the flame / Love is a losing game / Five story fire as you came / Love is losing game".
There is love lost on "Wake Up Alone" and "Back To Black" - both gloriously saucy in the face of losing said love. "Wake Up Alone" is a staccato delight that is almost warbled with sorrow. "Back To Black" is the album's cornerstone, a mix of everything that Winehouse does effortlessly. On the brink of vulgarity and yet when Winehouse sings "He left no time to regret / Kept his di ck wet / With his same old safe bet / Me and my head high / And my tears dry / Get on without my guy", it doesn't feel contrived. Almost too much, but reels itself back in before hurling from a cliff.
Back To Black isn't all love and sorrow though. On "Addicted", an ode to Winehouse's affection for marijuana, she is cheeky and colorful. "Some Unholy War" is both a small political statement and a testament to fidelity whose layering of vocals is superbly done.
Back To Black is the kind of album that makes you wish that vinyl were still popular. It makes you want to slow dance, get drunk, pick a fight with someone and make up. It is a beautifully arranged and produced album produced by Mark Ronson (Nikka Costa, Ghostface Killah, Christina Aguilera) and Salaam Remi (Nas, Fugees, Toni Braxton) who deserve so much credit for not making Winehouse sound dated or like she's trying to hard to be something she's not. The entire album feels organic and right.
"He Can Only Hold Her" and "You Know I'm No Good" are firmly planted in vintage soul but with a contemporary feel. With "You Know I'm No Good" it seems that despite the fact that she's become tabloid fodder as of late, Winehouse knows exactly who she is. She is flawed and laid bare and it's so good to listen to.
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