CD review: Amy Winehouse – Lioness: Hidden Treasures
Listening to Amy Winehouse’s “last album” reminded me of passing the tributes left by fans outside her Camden home after her death from alcohol poisoning this July. The random scrappiness of this collection of alternative takes, covers and sketchy new material is made poignant by the context in which it has been released. And – as with that exposed and emotional pavement collage of bottles, candles, ashtrays, scrawled notes and battered guitars – it lays bare what made her both such a unique and such a troubled artist.
The songs on Lioness were selected and produced by Salaam Remi, who worked with Winehouse on her debut album Frank (2002), its chart-storming successor Back to Black (2009) and had been slated to produce her third. Remi claims to have spent only a fortnight since the 27-year-old star’s death “touching things up, adding some strings” to the 12 tracks which were recorded between 2002 and March this year. He clearly wants fans to feel that the music is as raw and “authentically Amy” as she left it – although we should remember that she chose to leave most of it authentically shelved.
She always described herself as “a jazz singer” and it’s a pleasure to hear her scatting her way through moods and melodies, sketching vocals out, even when they don’t work. After all the focus on her unhappiness, it’s a reminder that this is what she loved doing – and that even when she was finding her way through narratives of heartbreak and despair, Winehouse was at a kind of play.
Less enjoyable and less forgivable are some of Remi’s ham-fisted production “touches” – particularly a vocal fade-out on the 2006 demo “Wake Up Alone” that sounds like something from a Seventies sitcom dream sequence, and a jarringly inserted rap from Nas on an otherwise lovely (if vocally indistinct) song, “Like Smoke.” Winehouse may have been a big fan of the New York hip-hopper, but this desolate song about a woman who feels herself paralysed and powerless really doesn’t need a guy suddenly interrupting her fragility to bang on about the recession, offer his views on the afterlife and incite everybody in da club to say “Yeah!”.
Lioness opens with a refreshingly light and upbeat reggae cover of “Ruby and the Romantics’ 1963 hit “Our Day Will Come,” recorded in 2002. You can imagine Winehouse daydreaming and carefree on some idyllic Caribbean beach as the warm, retro Hammond organ chords lap at her toes and paradisiacal flutes flutter around the flowers tucked into her beehive. The characteristic scratch-slurred defiance of her vocals gives grit to puppy-love lyrics like “No one can tell me that I’m too young to know/ I love you so.”
With its breezy whistling intro, the second track seems set to continue the kicked-back mood, but despite the cosy doo-wop harmonies and twinkling xylophone notes, “Between the Cheats” is a darker, original composition from 2008, a year after she married Blake Civil-Fielder, with whom she had a turbulent and apparently violent relationship. “I’d take a thousand thumps for my love,” she sings, rhyming that “love” with “boxing glove”. It’s a promising first take, but neither the vintage-by-numbers production nor the laconic vocal delivery pack the punch of the narrative.
The emotionally exhausted mood is much more effective on her old song, “Halftime,” built around just the singer and her “simple sweet guitar”, on which she pays tribute to Frank Sinatra, confessing that when Old Blue Eyes sings “it’s too much to take/ he pacifies my ache.” On the sultry Thirties standard “Body and Soul,” which was to be her final recording, she sings with another of her jazz heroes, Tony Bennett.
A slowed down, slightly off-kilter version of “Tears Dry” is a resigned, wrung-out, elevator-jazz recollection of its Back to Black intensity, while a slightly less frenetic version of her hit Zutons cover “Valerie” is more successful. She mucks about with clubby bossa nova on a cover of “The Girl from Ipanema” that is styled too high, too cute and too fast for her.
There’s more drama on a cover of Carole King’s classic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” (recorded in 2004), on which Winehouse’s vocals rise and fall between the vulnerability and confrontation of the lyrics as Remi’s production goes all out for wall-of-sound drum ‘n’ brass theatricals.
The record ends with a rawly emotional cover of “A Song for You” made famous by Marvin Gaye – although Winehouse always preferred Donny Hathaway’s version. Like Winehouse, Hathaway struggled with depression and despair for much of his life. He committed suicide, aged 33, in 1979. At the end of her version, recorded at her Camden home in 2009, Winehouse can be heard telling Remi that Hathaway “couldn’t contain himself. He had something in him.” For better, and for worse, so did she.
— Lioness: Hidden Treasures, Amy Winehouse, is released by Island on December 5.