There used to be a time when a record label would stay with an artist for a couple of albums and allow them to find their artistic voice before they blew up. It’s very easy to think of artists like Bruce Springsteen and U2 when discussing this phenomenon, but it’s become a less common thing as record companies have invested in disposable, quick-buck artists.
Which is why the success of British soul singer Amy Winehouse in the U.S. has been so startling. Her second album (first to be released in the U.S.), Back to Black, has become 2007’s most unlikely hit. With a sound that doesn’t fit into where current pop music is going, and only one relatively minor hit single (“Rehab”), Black to Black has sold nearly 1.5 million copies and is sure to earn Winehouse a Best New Artist nod (at the very least) when Grammy nominations are announced in December. Musically, the album is a throwback to the girl groups of the ’60s and the Motown sound. Vocally, while she favors contemporary artists Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, her sound can easily be traced back to jazz legends like Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday. Lyrically, she has one of the sharpest pens of anyone in the business, capable of wry sarcasm and pinpoint self-exploration. Yes, I’m gushing, damn it, because she’s that good. There’s a reason she’s become the UK’s most successful export since Coldplay.
So, here we are, almost a year after Black to Black‘s Stateside release, feasting our eyes and ears on the long-awaited arrival of Winehouse’s 2003 debut album, Frank. Winehouse’s record label, Universal, obviously sees dollar signs in their eyes due to the fact that a lot of fans will be curious to hear what Winehouse sounded like at the outset of her career, pre-beehive hairdo and drunken twit of a husband. Of course, Winehouse has also generated a lot of publicity due to her self-destructive lifestyle, but since tabloids don’t sell records (hello Britney and J. Lo), we’ll leave her extracurricular exploits out of most of this discussion.
Personally, I’m a little miffed that the label decided to lop three tracks off of the album (there’s also a track missing from Back to Black‘s U.S. version). I’m not quite sure why the label didn’t just release both albums as initially intended. Two of the three songs are the closest things the album has to filler, but you might want to grab a copy of the import just to hear Amy’s reggae-fied take on the jazz standard “Moody’s Mood for Love”. Her delivery on this oft-covered song is exquisite, and the light dub flavor actually complements the song. I scratch my head when I think of why this, of all songs, was removed.
Quite possibly the most interesting about Frank is that it doesn’t sound much like it’s follow-up. While hip-hop producer Salaam Remi is on board for good chunks of both albums (and is behind the boards for Frank‘s more adventurous cuts), the post doo-wop flavor so prevalent on Black to Black isn’t here. What you wind up with is an album that walks the midpoint between Erykah Badu and Norah Jones. With that said, it’s only slightly less musically appealing than Winehouse’s current album, and a quick listen to the lyrics reveals no doubt as to who wrote these songs. The caustic attitude and real-life situations that made so many folks flock to Back to Black was there from Day One.
Album highlights include the Roots-ish “Stronger Than Me”, during which she completely emasculates a boyfriend, questioning his sexuality and saying he’s “longer than frozen turkey” (no, I don’t know what that means, either. Must be a British thing). She reinforces her affinity for hip-hop by flowing flawlessly over the aggressive breakbeat from Nas’s “Made You Look” (also produced by Remi) on the melodic “In My Bed”. Along the way, she dedicates a song to her guitar (“Cherry”), takes a hilarious look at gold-digging women (“F*** Me Pumps”), and stops to give us heartbreaking ballads like the delicate “(There Is) No Greater Love”. Hints of the self-destructive streak that would lyrically color Back to Black are present on songs like “What Is It About Men” and “Amy Amy Amy”.
What Frank winds up reinforcing is the fact that Winehouse’s success (unlike name-your-current-American-female-vocalist) is based on pure talent rather than good producers or gimmicks. From a musical standpoint, her two albums are quite different, but they’re both excellent works. From a lyrical and vocal standpoint, she has few peers in her age group. Anyone who fell in love with Back to Black would be wise to check this out (provided they didn’t already get the jump and purchase this as an import). The woman’s talent is undeniable. Let’s hope she sticks around long enough for us to enjoy even more of it.