Saturday, March 31, 2007

Album Review: Amy Winehouse - Back to Black (5/5)

In 2006, it took almost the entire year before I found an album worthy of a 5-star review; this year it came in the first quarter. Amy Winehouse’s sophomore album, Back to Black, is a stunning collection of perfectly crafted pop/R&B that’s both enjoyably retro and engagingly modern. Take the best of Lily Allen’s foul-mouthed British sensibility, but leave it in a dirty ditch with even more lurid lyrics, and the best of Christina Aguilera’s Back to Basics retro-soul but make is smokier and darker, and you’ll get close to the vibe of this brilliant disc. Musically, it sounds like the follow-up to Miseducation that Lauryn Hill never made, but lyrically unlike anything I can think of. Does anyone else truly revel in being bad like she does?

Case in point is opening track and first single “Rehab,” a true story about her refusal to seek treatment for alcoholism, despite urgings by her management. The seemingly serious subject is belied by an upbeat mix of retro R&B sounds—girl group background harmony, hand claps, chimes, strings and tinkling piano—sounds that permeate many of the songs on the album, particularly those produced by Mark Ronson, which, no surprise, produced several tracks for both Lily Allen and Christina Aguilera’s recent albums, as well as Robbie Williams (Ronson’s own single, “Stop Me,” out now is also great).

Rhythmic “You Know I’m No Good” follows, clearly keeping up the bad girl thing. The song features sharp beats, raspy retro horns, and distant fuzzy guitars, like those from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. “Me and Mr. Jones” opens like many a sweet ‘60s Motown girl group song, until Winehouse intones “What kind of fuckery is this? You made me miss the Slick Rick gig,” putting her own spin on the situation. “Just Friends” continues the R&B groove although smoother. It’s the fourth great song in a row on the album, which features no duds among the eleven tracks.

But as good as those opening four tracks are, the song that really shines on this album is its title track, “Back to Black,” a gorgeous, dark tale of the pain and shame of being the other woman (“You go back to her, and I go back to black”). The song saunters along with hard piano chords, vibes, scratchy distant guitars, and swells with strings during the choruses. Winehouse sounds fantastic on it too. The song gets really quiet after the second chorus before building back up again—perhaps the loveliest part in this amazing song. It gives me chills with each listen—it’s that good.

“Love is a Losing Game” is a lovely old school ballad that finds Winehouse toning down the lyrics in favor of honest melancholy. “Tears Dry on Their Own,” picks up the tempo then, another Motown-esque number backed by a brassy ‘60s-sounding band. “Wake Up Alone,” another Ronson track, is lovely doo-wop flavored balladry.

Effective instrumentation is a hallmark of many of the album’s songs; “Wake Up Alone” opens with sharp, plucky bass, “He Can Only Hold Her” is punctuated with horns. Final track “Addicted,” inexplicably omitted from the U.S. release, is an ode to marijuana, which she says does more for her than, well, that particular part of the male anatomy. It closes the album in signature ‘60s swinging style.

At times dark and dirty, at other times light and funky, Back to Black is a brilliant merger between old school ‘60s R&B and contemporary production sensibilities, tied together perfectly by Winehouse’s deep, husky voice and boundless personality.

Best Tracks: Back to Black, You Know I’m No Good, Me are Mr. Jones, Rehab, Love is a Losing Game, Tears Dry on Their Own, Addicted.


Robin said...

I agree. What was your last 5/5? Muse?

Have you head THe Noisettes?

ww_adh said...

Muse was. I haven't heard the Noisettes, but I've heard they're good. Do you like them?