Monday, April 30, 2012

Postscript from the Crypt: Amy Winehouse’s Sad Remains

Amy Winehouse, Lioness: Hidden Treasures

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Amy was two albums and done; this is not the third album we were looking for. Download tracks 8, 9 and 10 as worthy bonus tracks to those collections. The rest—including the much ballyhooed duet with Tony Bennett—is overproduced, out-of-character schmaltz, or, as in the case of that much ballyhooed duet, just a subpar song.

Apparently, one of the tragedies of Amy Winehouse’s life and career is that she didn’t record much. Well over half a decade since Winehouse’s release of Back to Black there were only a handful of finished songs for a third album. As these songs are nowhere near the level of material that made people like me look past the photos of Winehouse drunk/stoned and held up for laughs on BBC America’s The Graham Norton Show,
those songs should have ended up as bonus tracks for the anniversary release of a much better album.

The first track is particularly telling. Winehouse should absolutely slay a song like “Our Day Will Come,” but once I heard that awful, ill-timed, and flat unnecessary reggae guitar scraping in the background I wanted to break that guitar over the producer’s head. 

A lot of the trouble with this album is the badly mixed, scattershot arrangements. For many agonizing tracks it sounds as if her producer wants to make her into some kind of Andy Williams-esque crooner, complete with those horrible, overwhelming background choirs enjoyed only by people of a very narrow demographic, i.e., really, really old. Not wise, kindly, been-around-the-block old. Obnoxious, stupid, ugly-trousers-pulled-to-the-chin old.

Ironically, Winehouse’s genius was in synthesizing the old and new in ways you’d never expect to work. I’m talking slow, snarling Billie Holliday 1940s lounge sass mashed with 1960s British pop horn arrangements laid over that shuffle-shuffle-THOOM! beat we all know from driving in town among the happy citizens of Hip-Hop Nation. It’s not until tracks 8 through 10 that we finally get a taste of that—and it was all I could do not to skip Winehouse’s terrible reading of Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” let alone eject the disc and throw it the window. Then there’s the weak tea that is “The Girl From Ipanema,” another horribly arranged and mixed song she should have owned. 

It turns out that, of these three most listenable songs, two are from the time of her first album, Frank. “Half Time” features Winehouse and her acoustic guitar; no lush arrangements here. Although it name-dropped Frank Sinatra and was technically the song the album was named for the track was deemed not quite good enough. Given the amazing stuff on Frank—in my opinion, a much better album than Back to Black I can understand. On this dog’s breakfast of scraps from the cutting room floor, though, it’s welcome relief. 

According to the liner notes the haunting “Wake Up Alone” was the first track recorded for the Back to Black sessions, and all in one take. “Best Friends, Right?” was reportedly a show opener from Winehouse’s Frank days, and it has the sharp wit and clever rhymes that made me fall in love with this singer in the first place. I recommend their download, but once you hear these songs you in the context of the albums they were originally left off of, you understand why they were left off.

Yes, Amy Winehouse was a hot mess. I don’t think we were supposed to notice but it’s all there in the photos included in the CD booklet. In at least one she’s appears so emaciated one wonders why no one called an intervention for bulimia. Her signature unkempt beeehive, her ragged couture and tattoos look laughably out of place in some photos, especially outside in broad daylight, even more so on a Caribbean beach. Amy Winehouse was a one-of-a-kind creature specific to a very particular time and place: ‘round about midnight in the booziest, smokiest, stankiest hole-in-wall gin joint with a stage.

Seven p.m. on a bright Vegas stage surrounded by old people farting out the remains of the all-you-eat seafood buffet simply won’t do it. Don’t get me wrong, I respect Tony Bennett even if his songs or style don’t appeal to me. Besides, no one could make this crap sound good. “Body and Soul” is supposed to be a 1930s jazz standard but I can’t think of anyone who did their careers any favors singing these tin-foil on the teeth lyrics:

My heart is sad and lonely,
For you I sigh, for you, dear, only

Then Winehouse sings, and her signature rasp is gone. Was this the producer’s doing, or was Winehouse toning down her tough-girl smokers voice to gel with Bennett’s smooth croon? Whatever the reason, Winehouse doesn’t sound like Amy Winehouse. Just some baffled chick trying to make the most of a lame “standard” with Tony Bennett.

So it’s settled, then. There will be no third album. Frank and Back to Black will have to do. Still, what albums!

As far as posthumous releases go, let’s hope it’s one and done. The poor child has suffered enough. So have we.