Culling the Herd: Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse, "Back to Black" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

It's really impossible to me to write about this record with anything resembling perspective.  I first heard of Amy Winehouse probably sometime in early 2006.  She was a couple of years past the release of her first record - "Frank" - which had gotten some terrific reviews.  She was also getting some notoriety for her boozy / incoherent live shows.  At the time, I was newly sober, still struggling at times with staying that way, and the last thing I needed was to start listening to drinking music.  Yeah, ridiculous, but hey.

Then, in late 2006, "Back to Black" was released, fronted by the first single, "Rehab."  Oy.  My first reaction was that it was a gimmick song, a Macy Grey "I'm so high I can't speak" thing that I could ignore.  And it is, on some level.  I had no interest (see above), but the critical buzz continued unabated, and once I listened to the rest of the record...oh, my.  I talk about Alison's voice, but this is every bit as good in entirely different ways.  Deep, expressive, sweet, nasty, sexy...it's all of those, and more, on top of a fantastic backing band (I later read that some tracks are backed by Sharon Jones' backing band, the Dap-Kings, and it shows).  It's a remarkable record, all the more so because she wrote almost the whole thing...at age 23.  "Tears Dry On Their Own" is an Ashford / Simpson song, and "Back to Black" is a collaboration with producer Mick Ronson, but the rest are all hers.  How can someone so young have such world-weariness, without some hard, hard living?

And now she's dead, if not from an actual alcohol and drug binge, then almost certainly from the things she did to herself over the years - look at the cover of "Frank," then look at this cover.  She aged at least a decade in those three years.

The question, then - could she have done this record and stayed clean?  Part of what made her lyrics and her voice so compelling is the very thing that killed her.  Adele has an amazing voice, but she doesn't have the edge that Winehouse did, or has not yet shown it.  Sometimes the brightest flame, etc.  But this record is a real keeper.