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What I’m listening to this week: Amy Winehouse

August 23, 2009

Frank – 2003

There are many, many things that everyone knows about Amy Winehouse; unfortunately, most of those things aren’t music related.  Her 2006 record Back to Black was a worldwide sensation, ushering in a new wave of young soulful divas, who both copied Amy’s vocal stylings and helped resurrect an appreciation for classic soul and R&B, incorporating those elements into a contemporary and updated genre all its own.  Although the pressures of fame, fortune, and youth eventually came to threaten the appeal of her talent in the eyes of some, years earlier, Amy’s wildly successful debut album Frank was at the very forefront of that movement.  Recorded at the age of 19 and three years before the refined retro quality of Back to Black, Frank is much more jazz oriented and free-spirited, allowing Amy’s uniquely raw phrasing and fluid vocals to take center stage.  Plus, her songwriting is surprisingly mature and insightful at this stage, with no-holds-barred jabs at love, lust, and even herself.

Amy’s brassier qualities are in full effect from the very beginning of Frank, with the hit single, “Stronger Than Me”, dishing it out to a boyfriend who doesn’t live up to her expectations.  It’s also one of the best and ballsiest diss songs ever with the chorus, “Cos’ I’ve forgotten all of young love’s joy/Feel like a lady, but you my lady boy“, and that’s just before she questions his sexuality.  It’s not only creative and fearless songwriting, but her voice is absolutely alluring; powerful, quietly frustrated, and demanding at all once.  Frank softens a bit on the next track, “You Sent Me Flying”, a song that finds Amy reeling when a boyfriend dumps her unexpectedly.  The song is a total jazz number, but it’s kept fresh by relevant lyrics (“And although my pride is not easily disturbed/You sent me flying when you kicked me to the curb”) that are deeply confessional and emotionally honest, and Amy’s voice transitions effortlessly between intimate pain and seamless jazz riffing.

Another fantastic highlight (and another bitchy song) is “F**ck Me Pumps”, where she blatantly and callously calls out desperate, gold-digging club ladies in a sardonic and matter-of-fact way.  “F**ck Me Pumps” has so many great lines, it’s too hard to pick the best; yeah it’s catty, but it’s hilarious and probably at least a little true.  “I Heard Love Is Blind” is like a jazz version of Back to Black‘s “You Know I’m No Good”; except that on Frank, Amy’s misdeeds (“I couldn’t resist him/His eyes were like yours/His hair was exactly the shade of brown/He’s just not as tall, but I couldn’t tell/It was dark and I was lying down) are hidden by her almost unapologetic sweet vocals and the light and sparse instrumental arrangement.  “Take the Box” falls into that category as well; as the candid lyrical meaning of the song is hidden by the classical jazz rendering.  Amy also proves her jazz metal by tackling covers of two classics, “Moody’s Mood for Love” and “(There Is) No Greater Love”.  Her vocal performance and interpretation of both songs is excellent, although on Frank, they’re not as much of a draw as Amy’s own work.

“In My Bed” is a departure from the rest of the album musically; it’s a more slick and commercial R&B-produced track.  Even though that sounds like it might not be a good thing, it’s actually successful because the songwriting is excellent and Amy’s voice is so soulful that it’s not a stretch at all.  “What Is It About Men” comes the closest to that in production value, but it’s much more retro then “In My Bed”.  “What Is It About Men” also gives shades of her personal demons with lines like, “My destructive side has grown a mile wide/And I question myself again: what is it ’bout men?”.  The album closer, “Amy Amy Amy”, finds her examining herself as well, with the line, “Where’s my moral parallel?”, but the song is seductive and sexy, the chorus chanting her name as she simmers and raves about her physical attraction to a guy.

Amy Winehouse is one of the great vocal talents to come around in a while, with rare personality and ability far beyond your average young female artist.  Despite her myriad troubles, there’s no taking away the brilliance of her work.  Frank is a remarkable debut album, deserving of all the praise it received when it was released.  If you only own Back to Black, definitely pick up Frank as well.  It’s a treat to hear an artist with a true inherent talent like hers, and on it’s own accord, it’s a contemporary jazz record worth having in your collection.

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