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British soul/pop singer Amy Winehouse is aggressively trashy. She's not campy, like Bette Midler, or hard-core like Janis Joplin, she's got a real "go to hell" attitude that redefines "devil may care" to put some real demons in the picture. In the press she's vowing to stay clean and make it to work on time, but her whole vibe is bad girl, James Morrison-like party girl. Like fellow Brit, Corinne Bailey Rae, she's a sophisticated and clever pop singer who can write up a storm. Like that other English singer, Joss Stone, she leans hard on the soul side of style. On Back To Black, the combination pays off in spades. "They tried to make me go to rehab/ I said no, no no" opens the record with a defiant attitude and a Leiber and Stroller feel. Ms Winehouse rolls on from there in fine, original and classic style. Back To Black is a double shot of wry and a dash of "Love Potion Number 9."

If Winehouse's debut, Frank was a subtle homage to the Fugees and the hip-hop generation, Black looks considerably farther back. The writing is classic pop, with catchy melodies and smooth metaphors. The arrangements packed stylized versions of Motown meets Bond film horns, and dexterous witty backbeat drum licks. They don't sound dated, and they don't seem campy. The effect is more sinister and bizarre, as if Winehouse is a hipster run amok. Imagine a film noir version of Moulin Rouge. There's a Warhol sensibility throughout the record that may be lost on a younger audience.

Not to knock youth; it's the element that makes all Winehouse's high style worthwhile. The title track, one of the few not penned by the lady herself, is a minor parade, delivered with Leonard Cohen's ominous Piaf fragility. Mark Ronson, the tunes composer and the record's producer, has created a whole soundscape for this record that is subtle and infectious. This is the kind of thing you want out on public radio to hear who it belongs to. There's lots of Phil Spector here, and a touch of the enigmatic Van Dyke Parks. Ronson doesn't overproduce (because Winehouse has serious pipes), but rather creates a consistent and specific atmosphere.

LuLu, on "To Sir With Love," and Dusty Springfield, on practically everything, defined Brit soul for women, in the same way Van Morrison did for men. "Love Is A Losing Game" and "Tears Dry On There Own" give a hint of Tom Jones to the mix. Winehouse and Ronson have a pretty grand vision, and the intimacy of the lyrics, drama of the vocals and epic sweep of the charts make for an unusual and fascinating combination. Back To Black is a 21st century CD, with lots of history behind it. It makes you want to listen more than once. You'll get something out of every pass. This is one of the hippest records in quite some time.

By Dave Morgan
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Last Updated: 17 Dec 2007 19:13:31 PST home  |  about  |  terms  |  contact
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