a voice found and lost
To be an Amy Winehouse fan is to have become accustomed to a cycle of hope and disappointment. After 2006's magnificent Back to Black, there were tour announcements, tour cancelations, trips to rehab, flashes of brilliance and ultimately an early death from alcohol poisoning.
Winehouse's much-awaited posthumous album, Lioness: Hidden Treasures, which was released this week, is similarly frustrating. Though sources once claimed Winehouse had left behind the framework of about a dozen new songs, Lioness contains only two new songs recorded after Back to Black, plus a handful of covers, old recordings and alternate versions of album tracks. It's a thin portfolio of material, but it's still pennies from heaven for fans who can't get enough of her iconic voice.
Winehouse can croon, but it's a reminder that it was her brash style that made Winehouse an icon, not just her voice.
The songs are (smartly) not arranged in chronological order, but they range back to early demos like "The Girl From Ipanema," which was recorded in 2002. Like Winehouse's debut album, Frank, it shows a great talent in search of the right sound and not exactly finding it in the retro bossa nova tune.
"Our Day Will Come" and 2003's wispy "Half Time" are much better — listening to Winehouse's perfect vocal control and execution, even over a middling beat, took me back to obsessively watching the video for "Rehab" and trying to figure out how she was able to do such cool things with her mouth.
Contrasting this promise with later recordings — the doo-wop-ish "Between the Cheats" and a 2009 cover of Donny Hathaway's "A Song For You" — shows just how ravaged Winehouse was by her addictions. In "A Song For You," Winehouse, once so careful and deliberate in drawing out the perfect phrase, is frequently indecipherable. And yet her raw emotion (plus brilliant production by Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi) makes the track utterly hypnotic. According to reports, she even broke down in tears while recording it.
Rapper Nas, the titular subject of Winehouse's "Me And Mr. Jones" shines on "Like Smoke," mostly because there's not much besides a couple verses and some scatting from Winehouse to fill out the track. And yet the mix of her signature '60s sound and hip-hop is more fulfilling than "Body And Soul," the more conventional duet with Tony Bennett.
Winehouse can croon, but it's a reminder that it was her brash style that made Winehouse an icon, not just her voice. I prefer the Amy that once demanded, "What kind of fuckery is this?"
Like so many before her, Winehouse was at her most creative when she was balancing on the edge of disaster. She was inspired by her demons, whether it was a lover she couldn't let go or a bottle she couldn't put down.
As an album, it's just a shadow of Winehouse at her best, but Lioness is fascinating as a behind the scenes portrait of an artist finding her voice and ultimately losing her way.