Monday, April 5, 2010

Amy Winehouse - Back to Black

I picked up this disc at Half Price Books a few weeks ago.  I had heard good things about it from someone who had gotten me started listening to jazz.


I had heard Rehab on the radio.  I had seen the tabloid exploitation of her personal life.  But I wasn't ready for the album.

The Billboard bio is a good starting point for understanding who this person is.  I laughed at these two quotes from their bio:
* "The British press and tabloids seemed to focus on her rowdy behavior and heavy consumption of alcohol, but fans and critics alike embraced her rugged charm, brash sense of humor, and distinctively soulful and jazzy vocals."
* "Nonetheless, her allure has been her songwriting -- almost always deeply personal, but best known for its profanity and brutal candor."

In her songs she is a very bad girl.  "I'll be some next man's other woman soon."  That's not the half of it.  You could call her every name in the book, and she would laugh and agree.  It seems to be all too true.  What an amazing human train-wreck.

I can't think of another example of a bad person who so thoroughly owns their actions.  It's fascinating.  Regret and self-contempt drip from every song.  But she shrugs and admits that she can't change.  If only we could all be so honest.

The lyrics stand on that honesty and openness.  But that's not all there is to this album.  The lyrical poetry is pointed and crisp.  The vocals are as soulful as you've heard.  Her voice is musky and dark, but not what I would call beautiful or powerful.  Her voice matches the lyrics and the music.

The musicians get little credit.  The liner notes say that Amy wrote most of the songs.  There are many musicians, and different musicians on many songs.  But the musicians play to her.  They set the ball right in front of her at the net, and let her take the credit for spiking it.  They play their parts well.  If you didn't speak English you could still enjoy the arrangements and the sounds of it all.

I watched a few videos of Amy's live performances on YouTube.  They lack the power of the album.  Maybe she's just too drunk to perform.  Maybe the studio professionals really are working a miracle on the album.  But as much as I enjoy the album, I wouldn't bother seeing her in concert.

I heartily recommend the album.  There are many bad words, and even the clean words are talking about adult situations (like adultery.)  But you have never heard an adulteress speak so candidly about her failures.  So this is definitely not an album for kids.

But it is a beautiful catastrophe to behold.

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