Words by Max Henderson
I hear the specter of ghosts in some music. See the absence of it in others. When I hear Amy Winehouse I hear voices inside voices. Finding a gem like Amy Winehouse’s voice is like walking on the beach and finding a bottled letter washing back on the shore. Stepping back into time. A stone dropped in the pond moving inwards and outwards at the same time. I hear Etta James, Billie Holliday, Ma Rainey, Florence Ballard; I hear the sounds of Motown echoing back to me from somewhere lost in the wraps and folds of time.
Back To Black by Amy Winehouse and produced by Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, is the album many should take cues from when it comes to recreating and wrestling with “The Motown Sound.” I am not saying they have reinvented the wheel and I am not saying Winehouse’s album is the only one to have recreated the “soul sound” successfully this past year. Credit should also go to Spanky Wilson, Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, Darondo, Nicole Willis and The Soul Investigators, and El Micheals Affair for being modern-bearers of soul standards. What Remi and Ronson have done for Winehouse is update the wheel’s appeal without leaving behind the former-incarnation stronger pieces.
There is much to cherish in this album, which drifts inside and out of crunched-drum patterns, milky bass lines, and Four Tops and Supremes-like vocal samples that mesh well against Winehouse’s solid vocal delivery in songs like “He Can Only Hold Her” and “Tears Dry Own Their On.” Ray Charles-organ vamps and Phil Specter “wall-of-sound” moments, against her voice, become an assured arrangement of sounds in the song “Rehab.” In this album is the music Christina Aguilera wanted to make. “Love Is A Losing Game” and “Back To Basics” have those moments Christina tried to achieve and Winehouse does this with a modern songwriting approach and references like on “Addicted,” which is about drug-etiquette, yet her songs are firmly planted in the tradition of torch singers: women who are able to open their lives on display with pain and remorse, lust and love inside each note. My favorite example of this has to be “Me and Mr. Jones.” This song is about a woman dealing with dilemmas of her man, complete with a Vocal R&B backing outfit and wry-horn section. You can hear in Winehouse’s delivery painful resilience, and bittersweet phrasing by her producers sound. It is hard to listen to parts of the album, because of its leanings to autobiography, without wondering what a person has to go through to create it; however, it is too addictive to turn away from it and deny the lasting pleasures of its sound.
Amy’s album will release to the U.S. this spring.
For more on Amy Winehouse, visit www.myspace.com/amywinehouse.
For more video clips, search for Amy Winehouse on Youtube.