A walloping punch
“And when my life is over, remember, remember, remember, remember,” Amy Winehouse improvised on her cover of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You”. Don’t worry, baby. Those of us who heard you live and listened to your records will never forget you. You had an amazingly soulful delivery and sang with astonishing passion. But you probably won’t be recalled because of the odds and sods and the posthumous CD, Lioness: Hidden Treasures. This grab bag of material was never meant to be released in this form. While there are no absolute stinkers here, too many of the songs contribute nothing to Winehouse’s legacy and seem like the filler it is.
Likewise, while there are no great revelations here, several tracks certainly shine. The songs were chosen by producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, who worked with Winehouse’s family to assemble the album. Among the best is the startling 18-year-old Winehouse jazzing it up on 2002’s “Half Time”, a polished studio effort reveals the artist’s ability to inhabit a song and extemporize gracefully at an early age. The song lies at the other end of the professional spectrum from the aforementioned “A Song for You” from 2009, which was originally recorded as a demo, but its vocal flaws showcase the fact that she cannot do a song with just half a heart. The emotional impact packs a walloping punch. The producers unfortunately dressed up the instrumental accompaniment instead of leaving it alone with just Winehouse and her guitar, but they fittingly let the taped conversation of Winehouse comparing Marvin Gaye to Donny Hathaway end the track—Winehouse’s version was based on Hathaway’s.
The straight covers here suggest that Winehouse understood the traditions from which she worked, but the most slickly produced ones (“Our Day Will Come”, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, and “The Girl From Ipanema”) suffer from a forced formality. She sings them clearly, but they fall flat. Although there were recorded years apart, each of these cuts seem like they could have been sung by anyone. There’s too much emphasis paid to the songs as art/artifacts from the past. Winehouse seems constrained, even when scat singing on the Brazilian number. She sounds much happier and more spontaneous on fluff like “Best Friends, Right”, a somewhat silly and sinister song that allows Winehouse to cut loose a little. Being nasty without sounding nasty is an art that Winehouse had mastered by the time of her first album Frank, from whose era this song had come.
Songs from the Back to Black era have a different edge. The version of “Wake Up Alone” here in particular drips tears that come from keeping up the façade of pretending everything is okay. Winehouse knew how to let the pain show while remaining the sophisticate. It’s as if she sings the song to two different audiences, the lover who has left her that she pleads with and the outside world to whom she pretends that she’s an independent spirit—often on the same line, beginning in one place and ending in another. Her phrasing, the ability to pause for just a fraction of a second and let the syllable to fall off and on the beat, is impeccable in this regard. She conveys her feelings as naturally as the wind blowing through the trees and leaves listeners feeling as if they’ve just witnessed a tornado.
But alas, this is only true for less than half of the dozen tunes here. They are good enough to make this release essential listening for Winehouse fans, but if you are not one already, buy one of her other releases first.