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Wednesday, March 28, 2007 01:41 am

Do the time warp again

Amy Winehouse may have produced the best soul album of Â’07

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Amy Winehouse Back to Black (Universal Republic)
Untitled Document Although it comes as a blow to our national pride, we should probably just admit it: The best soul album of 2007 may very well be a product of Britain. Meet Amy Winehouse, a 23-year-old white Londoner whose alarmingly skinny frame seems incapable of supporting her huge bouffant hairdo, much less the mountains of hype she inspired with Back to Black, which came out stateside this month. Since its release last year in the United Kingdom, Winehouse’s sophomore outing has gone to the top of the British charts, wound up on countless best-of-the-year lists, and earned the young singer/songwriter a Brit Award. But it’s not just her talent that’s generating all the buzz. Winehouse, who looks like a cross between Sarah Silverman and Elvira, is the archetypal Bad Girl, from her Cleopatra-style eyeliner to the old-school girlie tattoos on her arms to the F-bombs she drops in every other song. She drinks too much, eats too little, and makes catty remarks about her inferiors (my favorite: “Kylie Minogue’s not an artist; she’s a pony”). A tabloid writer’s dream, she’s prone to blabbing about her eating disorders, mood swings, and marijuana habit. It’s as if those damned Brits are determined to outdo us at every turn: They’ve got Winehouse, whose larger-than-life transgressions are dwarfed only by her talent; we’ve got Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, whose brattish hijinks are almost as pathetic as their vocal ability. When it comes to self-destruction, Winehouse (it’s as if Charles Dickens named her!) leaves those sniveling, rehab-cosseted dollypops in the dust. She freely admits that her lyrics are autobiographical, which makes her a very bad girl indeed. “Rehab,” Back to Black’s opening track, is a stinging rebuke to 12-steppers disguised as a gospel rave-up: “They tried to make me go to rehab/I said no, no, no.” Sanctioned by cheeky horns and a saucebox choir, she has no need to elaborate, but she does: “I’d rather be at home with Ray . . . /’Cause there’s nothing you can teach me that I can’t learn from Mr. Hathaway.” The title of the next cut, the slinky, hip-hop inflected “You Know I’m No Good,” says it all. “I told you I was trouble,” she sings, sounding both resigned and defiant, as if she can’t decide whether to let herself off the hook or throw herself a party. It’s a monstrous pop song, all rubbery basslines, sneaky loops, and galumphing beats, but it’s also more complex than the typical hit single. Betrayed by a carpet burn, she owns up to her infidelity in a telling way: “I cheated myself like I knew I would.” Turns out, the song isn’t about a wronged lover; it’s about the compulsion to wrong herself. Much has been made of Winehouse’s retro sound, a formula that fuses Motown bounce, Stax swagger, and ’60s girl-group Sturm und Drang. Factor in her singular voice (a pinch of Ann Peebles, a sprinkling of Ronnie Spector, a heaping helping of Billie Holiday) and many vintage production touches (courtesy of Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi), and Back to Black is quite the time warp. Winehouse, however, is no mere revivalist. She puts a contemporary spin on all the classic forms, whether it’s an obscene neologism and a Slick Rick reference in the doo-wop ditty “Me and Mr. Jones,” rock-steady rhythms in the quiet-storm confessional “Just Friends,” or a teensy rap sample in the R&B throwback “He Can Only Hold Her.” Best of all is the title track, a throat-constrictingly great Phil Spector homage that neatly embodies Winehouse’s muscular emotionalism: “I love too much, it’s not enough/You love blow and I love Poe.” Black has never been bleaker or more beautiful.

Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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