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Music Reviews: Back to Black by Amy Winehosue and Introducing Joss Stone by Joss Stone

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When I was young, I wanted to sing like a big, black gospel singer. Is that stereotype offensive? Maybe, but I was, like, nine, so I didn’t know any better. But now that there’s a British neo-soul invasion storming the U.S., I might have to amend that to also wanting to sing like a young, white British woman.

For instance, if I want to sing like Amy Winehouse, which I so desperately do, I’d really need to get my drink on. Four of the ten tracks on her American debut, Back to Black, reference alcohol in some way. The torchy title track, with its cinematic strings and echo-chamber bridge, is the gut-wrenching kiss-off of a woman who chooses her drinking-and-drugged-out blackouts while her lover chooses another woman (“You go back to her/And I go back to…”). Even the songs that don’t reference her vices directly are drenched in self-destructive heartbreak.

Thank God for Phil Spector. The legendary producer’s iconic “Wall of Sound” influence is all over Winehouse’s album (her debut, Frank, was allegedly more jazzy R&B and was not released in the States). Strings, chimes, hand claps, harp, and horns perfectly complement Winehouse’s lyrics without letting them weigh down a song. Winehouse’s powerfully deep, sprawling voice is often compared to the likes of Shirley Bassey and Sarah Vaughn and all the more impressive because she doesn’t rely on the melismatic faux-passion of so many of her peers. Combined with her inspiration from Motown’s '50's and '60’s soul and a lifetime’s worth of heartache and Back to Black adds up to a sound well beyond Winehouse's 24 years.

Luckily, she also has a sense of humor, as should any young, sassy soul singer. It’s hilarious when, in the old-fashioned-sounding standout “Me & Mr. Jones,” she blares out “What kind of fuckery are we?/Nowadays you don’t mean dick to me” and her girl-group harmonies echo “dick to me-e-e-e” in the background. She then sums up her reluctance to end the relationship by addressing the title character with “’side from Sammy you’re my best black Jew.” Yeah, I kind of love her.

So it’s all the more stunning when she hits you with the poetry of her words. I can’t help but quote the entire chorus of “Wake Up Alone”:

He gets fierce in my dreams, seizing my guts,
He floors me with dread,
Soaked to soul he swims in my eyes by the bed,
Pour myself over him,
Moon spilling in,
And I wake up alone

Reading about Winehouse’s penchant for canceling sold-out shows and booze-soaked escapades, you hope she gets her shit together. Hell, even her management company staged an intervention, but as she documented in the riveting opening track, “Rehab,” she just said “No, no, no.”

However, her fellow Brit, Joss Stone, seems to be gushing “Yes, yes, yes!” all over her new CD, “Introducing Joss Stone.” From her new, funky, wild-child hair to her naked, graffiti’d body all over the album covers to an undeniable liberation in her actual songs, Stone seems to be having her own “Control” á la Janet Jackson moment. Her name ain’t baby… unless you’re under the covers with her.

Damn, girl done all grown up! How else to explain how, in “Put Your Hands on Me,” the lyrics “Bring me your sugar/And pour it all over me, baby” are followed by what can only be described as an all-out aural ejaculation? During the bridge she blares out a breathless rave of her man, ending with “I love him/I feel him/Oh, I’m loving those hands!” Easy, girl. Breathe.

Stone has described her third album as the first time she’s able to truly express herself (which is strange, as she received co-writing credits on most of her sophomore effort, Mind, Body & Soul), hence the title. She actually seems to be drawing from similar musical, if not lyrical, influences as Winehouse, employing girl-group harmonies and neo-Motown instrumentation. In interviews, Stone can’t help but gush about her producer and co-writer, Raphael Saadiq, which is appropriate as, according to his Wiki page, they’re dating.

Whatever is going on behind the scenes, Introducing… is a huge improvement over her previous albums. 2003’s The Soul Sessions was a fine introduction to the then-16-year-old prodigy, but, except for the slinky cover of The White Stripes’ “Fell In Love With a Boy” and a few others, the album felt like generic Soul 101. 2004’s Mind, Body and Soul was even worse. It’s overly long and overly constricting, tightening its young star in a noose of forgettable R&B to the point where she can barely breathe.

So I can forgive Stone for going a little overboard now that she feels emancipated from record label influences. She’s not just breathing here – she’s belting, blaring, and blasting all over the fourteen tracks. Some work, some don’t. The pumping bass, horns and sing-along back-up girls make the lead single, “Tell Me ‘About It,” a funky, appropriately brief blast of fresh air. The lush soundscape of “Proper Nice,” complete with twinkling harp and flirty back-and-forth harmonies, evoke a blissful descent into love. And if you’re inside while listening to the drum-‘n-bass propulsion of the opener “Girl They Won’t Believe It,” you’ll want to jump in the nearest convertible and bob your head back and forth in the wind.

Sometimes Stone and her loveryboy producer just seem to have too many ideas per song, but sometimes it comes down to Stone herself. She camped out in Barbados to pour all her energy into her lyrics, but the results rarely reach beyond easy clichés. “These are my words, and this is who I am as an artist,” she has stated in press releases. Fine, but who is she? Most of the songs are either about her love of love or her love of music. Both are perfectly fine, albeit unoriginal, themes, especially for a 19-year-old (what else does anyone know at 19?). But when she has fourteen entire songs all to herself to say whatever she’s bottled up for so long, I hoped she would sing about more than singing.

Still, for what Stone considers to be her real debut album, she displays an awful lot of potential. Maybe within five years, Saadiq will dump her and she’ll be hitting the bottle and the blues with Winehouse’s gusto, but I’m hoping this bohemian, bare-footed soul singer finds her own way.

Both talented artists are welcome on my radio anytime. I’ll be the guy in his apartment, blaring at the top of his lungs, starting his own Chicago neo-soul (mini-)invasion.

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About Don Baiocchi