Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice
Dec. 13, 2011
As 2011 draws to a close, a lot of year-end lists have been cropping up: Best Films of 2011, Best Songs, etc. Along with these comes the most disheartening list, Notable Deaths of 2011. Steve Jobs, Sidney Lumet, Elizabeth Taylor and Andy Rooney all passed away this year. In the music industry, the most shocking and saddening death of all was, in my opinion, the loss of Amy Winehouse.
Winehouse’s unexpected death on July 23 was crushing for several reasons: She was young, she was enormously talented, and she was clearly just getting started. Her death at age 27 also made her a member of the “Forever 27” club, a group predominantly made up of musicians who all died at this age. The list includes Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin, in additional to over 30 other artists.
Winehouse reminds me of Cobain in some ways. He was the most recent big-name inductee to the Forever 27 club before her. Both were innovators in their genre (grunge and neo-soul, respectively). Both released few albums (Nirvana had three major studio releases before Cobain’sdeath, Winehouse had only two). Both were in tumultuous romantic relationships with frequently intoxicated paramours who were partially blamed for their deaths (Courtney Love and Blake Fielder-Civil, respectively). Lastly, both had a strong love-hate relationship with the media that made them both famous and miserable.
Now, almost five months after Winehouse’s death, her compilation album, Lioness: Hidden Treasures has been released. Producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi put the CD together with the Winehouse family’s blessing. It features 12 tracks, including three new recordings of previously released Winehouse songs. Five of the songs—including Winehouse and Ronson’s biggest hit “Valerie,” originally by the Zutons—are covers. This is a departure for Winehouse, who had previously released only two songs, both on her sophomore album Back to Black, that she had not written or co-written herself.
The album opens with the reggae-inspired “Our Day Will Come,” originally sung by 1960s outfit Ruby and the Romantics. The song was recorded in 2003 for Winehouse’s first album, Frank, but never made it onto the CD. It is now being released as the second single off Lioness.
The hopeful lyrics in “Our Day Will Come,” which include the lines, “Our dreams are meant to be/because we’ll always stay/in love this way,” are quite different from Winehouse’s own, which typically deal with cheating lovers and general romantic hardship. Her voice, however, is as distinct as ever. Winehouse had the impressive talent of being able to sound as though she was grinning while she sang. Her smooth voice fills the record, dominating the instruments and the “ooo” of the background singers.
It is not until two songs later, however, on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” originally recorded by the Shirelles in 1960, that Winehouse really lets her pipes shine. Winehouse is known for her deep, pack-a-day alto, but on “Tomorrow,” she belts out a passionate high note I’d never heard her reach before. That’s the beauty of Lioness. It allows listeners to get a taste of Winehouse that she hadn’t previously shared with her fans and shows how the singer had grown throughout her career.
One track that was a letdown was “Like Smoke,” featuring rapper Nas. Winehouse certainly had a hip-hop influence in her music, but she never before featured another person on a song, let alone a rapper. Nas is undeniably talented at wordplay, but his style does not mesh well with Winehouse’s. She also only sings the chorus, while Nas performs both the song’s verses. It was the second verse—which features lyrics about the suffering economy and then somehow includes the lines “You colder than penguin poo,” and “See a penguin, he drags his s— on the ground all day/And there’s a dragon?”—that really struck me as out of place. After wondering what Nas could possibly be talking about, I concluded that the dragon reference could be about how he looks when he smokes pot (this makes slightly more sense if you listen to the rest of the song). Still, I didn’t get what that had to do with penguins, or the economy, or what Winehouse sings about in the chorus, which is—what else?—her relationship.
Though “Like Smoke” hits a sour note, Lioness quickly gets back into form with a slowed-down version of “Valerie” called “Valerie (’68 Version).” Next up was a delightful surprise: Winehouse’s cover of the bossa nova hit “The Girl from Ipanema,” originally recorded by Antônio Carlos Jobim. The song features playful scatting and luxurious singing from Winehouse. She sounds like the cat that ate the canary, her tone and the lyrics combining into what sounds like the soundtrack to a sun-drenched tropical locale.
One other track of note on Lioness is Winehouse’s duet with Tony Bennett, “Body and Soul,” first recorded in 1939 by Coleman Hawkins and originally released earlier this year on Bennett’s CD Duets II. “Body and Soul” was the last track that Winehouse ever recorded. Unlike her collaboration with Nas, Bennett and Winehouse are partners in this song, and Bennett’s raspy voice sounds great with Winehouse’s throaty one. The song sounds a bit like a lounge act by the end, but, after all, that’s Bennett’s style.
Lioness: Hidden Treasures does not always have the emotional drive or confident sass that made Winehouse such a memorable performer. However, it contains some of her best vocal work, and the mix of genres, covers and originals means that all of the singer’s various styles can be heard. While I’d still recommend Back to Black as Winehouse’s strongest work, Lioness rounds out her discography and will give her fans something more to remember her by.