Amy Winehouse is a big in Britain, not quite there yet in the States, singer-songwriter, and Back to Black is her second album. Sonically, it draws on 60's girl group and classic R&B sounds, and without major revamping makes them sound relevant for today.
"Rehab" is the opening track and lead single, plunging us right into this retro 60s world. I was liking things right from the catchy opening verse, “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I won’t go, go, go,” and I was hooked on the album with the dramatic entrance of a rhythmic horn and percussion line to underscore everything. Horns, both saxophone and brass, are the primary backing elements, working in conjunction with percussion on songs like “Just Friends” and “Me and Mister Jones.” My favorite horn line is the ascending trumpets on “He Can Only Hold Her,” which are matched perfectly with corresponding backing vocals.
“Me and Mister Jones” is an early standout, with 50s style doo wop backing vocals, and a great deep sax line, all a bit incongruous next to lyrics telling the story of the time she missed a Slick Rick gig. The best line here is “What kind of fuckery is this?” I was baffled for a moment, not expecting the F bomb to be dropped in something that sounded right out of the 50s, a testament to the world her music created. “Wake Up Alone” features a rising and falling guitar line that simultaneously channels the actual 50s and the odd revisionist 50s of David Lynch films.
“Back to Black” is the best track on the album, an emotional plea that’s backed by a fantastic bouncing piano line that soars into strings during the chorus. It slows down, then surges back to a cathartic final chorus. Listening to this track, I’m thinking that Amy would be a great choice for the next James Bond theme song.
Throughout, she uses lush instrumental arrangements to create a strong mood. The songs sound like standards, I could see Sinatra singing “Love is a Losing Game” on a 60s TV special, or The Supremes doing “Tears Dry on Their Own.”
I love electronic music, but I’ve always considered it a shame that the rise of electronic music and hip hop pretty much obliterated the orchestral pop of the 50s and 60s. This album shows that sound is still relevant today, and if anything sounds fresher because of its long absence. There’s a reason that so many classic pop songs endure, they’re great works of pop art, and I’m glad that Amy has come along and added to that canon.
I’m not sure about her chance of catching on with the American public. Unfortunately, we’re still resistant to something like this, that’s out of the contemporary paradigm of pop music. She’s going over with the blogrock audience, but I don’t think she’ll ever find the mainstream success she had in Britain here.
However, that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a fantastic album, full of songs that sound simultaneously fresh and classic. There’s not a bad track on here, and my only real complaint is that the album’s only 35 minutes. Amy’s got a fantastic voice, and the album is a joy to listen to. I think you’ll be seeing this on a lot of best of 2007 lists when the end of the year rolls around.