Amy Winehouse – Back to Black

Amy Winehouse

Back to Black

10-04-2006

Island Records/ Universal Music Group

Okay, so it has been announced that Amy Winehouse’s first posthumous album Lioness: Hidden Treasures will be released in early December (let the 2pacing begin!). Since Back in Black is the only project standing in between her debut album Frank, which was the first album up for review on www.straightfromthecrates.com I might as well get this out of the way so I can review that half-assed attempt at juicing her mourning fanbase project when it comes out.

So 2003’s Frank was a hit in the Commonwealth world when it came out but left most of the rest of the world not giving much of a fuck. When Winehouse resurfaced, trimmed of her body-fat, tattooed full and with a huge beehive haircut in ’06 that would all change though as her second album was universally acclaimed by rabid critics proclaiming it an instant classic and comparing Amy to such people as Billie Holiday (which is batshit insane I don’t care how much you love Amy. Thou shan’t, won’t compare people to Billie motherfucking Holiday, that is sacrilege) and sold millions of copies worldwide, giving Winehouse the kind of success that would almost certainly made her follow-up a disappointment of huge proportions. That follow-up hasn’t yet surfaced, nor will it ever surface as everyone will agree on that whatever Lioness will turn out to be content-wise, it will not be a legitimate Winehouse album without her creative input, which, off course, she cannot provide from the grave.

Back to Black, though, was a legitimate Winehouse album and it was praised for its deftly produced soul-instrumentals created by Mark Ronson, Frank-veteran and NaS- producer Salaam Remi, as well as Sharon Jones’ backing band the Dap kings, and Winehouse’s soulful performances, unusually blunt lyrics, general funky offness and what not.

Should you give a fuck, though?

1. Rehab

A worldwide smash and a breakthrough single. And credit where credit is due, a pretty catchy tune whose refrain will, if this shit was based on reality, give Winehouse’s father a terrible feeling of guilt whenever this pops up on the radio. As a pop song though this is pretty damn captivating, not unlike the slowmotion instant replay of the 9/11 attacks were, right after the fact. But Rehab isn’t supposed to be experienced a horrible news-fact, it’s a grimy soul song about which no-one could say anything objectively because of obvious circumstantial reasons. I’ll try though. The instrumental, courtesy of Mark Ronson, the lyrics, the singing and the hook are pretty effective so in a different light perhaps this would be more enjoyable. It is said how the jazz of Amy’s debut Frank is tossed out of the window for a more classical soul sound. Rehab confirms this. Can’t say I completely agree with this decision.

2. You Know I’m No Good

Ronson’s instrumental is soulful and pretty upbeat. This is, off course, quite intentionally done to contrast with Amy’s singing about fucking up relations and what not. Let’s hope Winehouse and co. came up with more ideas during the recording of this album because if every song is “ironic” like that, well then this album will get boring even within its ten track span.

3. Me & Mr Jones

I wonder if this one is about NaS, given that she was a known fan of his and has Salaam Remi, the man responsible for giving Nasir his career back, behind the boards. If so then it’s a diss since “nowadays [he] don’t mean dick to [Amy]” and she’s mad at him for making her miss a Slick Rick gig. Anyway, I love the word fuckery as well as Amy’s apparent good taste in hiphop so that was nice. Also, it helped that she was sensible enough to simply cover Me and Misses Jones, Michael Bublé style, that’d be godawfully boring. Not that this is fantastic or anything…

4. Just Friends

Meh.

5. Back to Black

A pretty effective break-up song backed by a typically competent but little exciting imitation of ‘60s soul by Mark Ronson. I particularly enjoyed the first stanza, there’s literally no-one but Amy could’ve penned that stuff.

6. Love Is a Losing Game

Well, this sounds like the umpteenth cover version of some classic from the great American songbook but it isn’t, it’s an original Winehouse/ Ronson creation. You could take that as both a compliment and as a criticism.

7. Tears Dry on Their Own

I don’t know whether to get pissed over the blatant jacking of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough or to admire how this does in fact sound different from that song. I think I’ll do the former because this is the third breakup-song in a row, which is all sorts of redundant.

8. Wake Up Alone

The “at least I’m not drinking” lyric should ring a bell and strike a chord with every borderline alcoholic. Oh, you’re not a borderline alcoholic, you say? You just like a drink every once in a while? Relax, yo, it’s legal and I’ve got problems of my own. Anyway, this one seems to be about some of said problems so yeah, I was really feeling this one. Musically this one was only so-so but lyrically this was a lot more interesting to me than the three songs that came before this one.

9. Some Unholy War

I don’t like social commentary songs by pop artists. Although Amy doesn’t classify as a pop artist in the derogatory sense. And on closer inspection this isn’t a social commentary song. Not terrible, not awe-inspiring either.

10. He Can Only Hold Her

The first song from a second person perspective and some pleasant background-music but nothing more than that.

11. Addicted

Yeah it’s annoying when you’re in that stoner-phase of your life, and someone drops by and smokes all your weed. But seriously, is that enough of a premise for an interesting song? Amy apparently thought that not only it was but that said song would be a fantastic album closer too. I respectfully disagree as I found it hard to keep my attention on this. Not unlike someone who’s stoned out of his mind, I suppose.

Best tracks

Rehab, You Know I’m No Good, Back to Black, He Can Only Hold Her

Conclusions

So, yeah. The tossing the jazz-hop out of the window thing. Very much true. In its place are, mostly, Ronson’s classic soul meets hiphop production techniques. The problem with this is that these backing instrumentals aren’t very special. Everything is done professionally and without any major fuck-ups making it to the final cut but everything, except for the four tracks mentioned above sounds like a variation of the same song. It just makes me wonder what might’ve happened if Amy would’ve gotten down with the likes of the RZA, DJ Premier or Kanye West, rather than or in addition to Ronson and Salaam Remi, especially Primo, considering how much he did for Christina Aguilera. That would probably have done the album a lot of good since their horny soulful production styles would’ve fit onto the album seamlessly, but it still would’ve shaken everything just enough to make shit more interesting. An alternative to dragging more people into the booth would be recording some more Frank-ish tracks. Besides the production being decent, not great and a bit repetitive, Amy also repeats herself a lot. I get it, Amy, You’re depressed about your own alcoholism, drug taking and choice of partners. Do I look like a psychologist to you? It’s not like I don’t care but… are you meaning to say you’ven’t done anything fun lately? Still, these subjects, penned down by Amy’s unique songwriting hand make for a couple of interesting songs… just not eleven of them.  The above tracks do stand out in a good way, or maybe I just got bored after the first two songs until Amy said something about a dick on the title track. No, Back to Black isn’t a terrible album but it’s most certainly not the classic everyone makes it out to be either. Nor, is her 2003 debut, but that one comes a lot closer. Back to Black is the more consistent of the two but Frank has more highlights. In fact, two cuts from that album which I didn’t like all that much on first listen of that album but grew on me afterwards, Stronger than Me and Fuck Me Pumps, could, by a small margin, kick the entirety of Back to Black’s ass. That leaves it being an album which with its eleven tracks doesn’t overstay its welcome and has five pretty good songs and six not-too-bad lesser but not-quite-filler tracks. Disappointing, but not bad.

Recommendations

It’s okay.You can spend money on this if you want to. Just not too much, but chances are that you’ll find this in large stacks in the discount section of your local record store as literally everyone and their grandmother already owns a copy. There’s little chance you’ll hate it… Chances are you’ll find it pretty entertaining actually. Just don’t go so far as to proclaim this a classic. You’ll seem like an annoying bandwagon-jumper who’s out of touch with reality to people who have actually heard classic albums. And do put Amy’s debut Frank higher on your to do list. It is way better.

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