Saturday, August 27, 2016

Back to Black (2006)

I didn't much go for last year's documentary about Amy Winehouse, Amy, which I suppose I went to out of some sense of duty. The truth is I had always kind of avoided the topic—scoring a hit called "Rehab" and then dying at the age of 27 of problems related to substance abuse never struck me as a winning formula. Honestly, self-destruction, tragic death, and that kind of thing have had diminishing interest for me since approximately turning 40. But Winehouse obviously had a faithful following, and if the documentary may be altogether too thrilled with celebrity for my taste, it still offered a primer on her career and a basic insight that helped me turn a corner, certainly with the most famous of her two albums, which opens on her one and only hit. She says it herself in the documentary at one point, but it really took the visuals to drive it home for me: with this album, at least, she is drawing on sources from Brill Building New York in the early '60s, the era of girl groups and megalomaniacal producers—Phil Spector, Shadow Morton, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Shangri-Las are all obvious starting points on some of the best songs here (and on "Rehab" too), with horn charts, backing singers, purring organ keyboards, clanking piano chords, and sultry grooves. There are real glories in the dense wallop of these tracks, and whether produced by Salaam Remi or Mark Ronson they are completely up to making a context for Winehouse's greatest weapon, her croaking, searching, warbling, and offhandedly powerful voice. She uses that to create a perfectly charming New Jersey persona here—"What kind of fuckery is this?" she demands as one song drops in. I don't know jazz singing, because I'm not that interested in it, but even I can pick out the chops she has. And I didn't need Tony Bennett to confirm it for me in the picture, but it was nice to see. The focus of her music often revolves around the imposing presence of her voice, but she is never a mere technician, often leaping into instinct, and she was also getting better at writing songs too (though unfortunately less so perhaps at actually applying herself to it, and yes, we all know why). So, right, this is a pretty great album, complete with its own style, mood, moxie, and impact, part beehive hairdo, part smoky nightclub, part grabby insistent hooks and rhythms, and all heart. A real beauty, for the ages.

1 comment:

  1. I see the New Jersey thing, sure, but is "fuckery" New Jersey? I associate it big now w/ Jamaican patois, or ever since reading that Marlon James novel, Seven Killings.