Editor’s Note: We recently looked at the “last” album from a number of big names in rock. The responses were pretty interesting, so we thought we’d dig deeper into another final project. Let us know what you think in the comments.
There are few artists whose talents have burned brighter and briefer than Amy Winehouse’s. Though she only released two studio albums and one posthumous collection, her vocal stylings soon became some of the most recognizable.
Born in September 1983 near London, Amy was introduced to music, especially jazz, via her mother’s aunts and uncles as many of them were already professional musicians. Her father introduced her to Sinatra standards and Amy would soon become adept at mimicking that style of musical vocalizations. She was not enamored with early education and instead devoted her time to music and learning to play guitar.
In 1992, she attended the prestigious Susi Earnshaw Theatre School in Barnet, North London which further honed her singing skills. By 2000, she was the feature female vocalist with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. During this time, she wrote for the World Entertainment News Network and performed with a local group, the Bolsha band.
Soon after, her schoolmate, friend, and pop singer Tyler James sent her demo tape to his label, A&R, which happened to be looking for a jazz vocalist at the time. She subsequently was signed by Island/Universal records. They released her debut album Frank (2003), a jazzy tour of songs of love and torture. Selling over one million copies, it was certified triple platinum, and earned an Ivor Novella Award for songwriting and composing. While it was generally well received, later Winehouse would say it reflected a painful time in her life and she had not been able to listen through the entire album since.
This was also the time when Amy began struggling with substance abuse, often showing up for performances too drunk to make it through a set. Her management company suggested that she enter rehab, but instead, she changed management companies and wrote the song “Rehab” for her upcoming album.
In 2006, Winehouse released Back to Black, a collaboration with Mark Ronson (“Valerie”, “Uptown Funk”), Salaam Remi (Nas, Nellie Furtado), and The Dap Kings. Her song “Rehab” became a top 10 hit, and the album resulted in five singles, “Rehab”, “Love is a Losing Game”, “Back to Black”, “Tears Dry on Their Own”, and “You Know I’m No Good”. The album won the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album in 2008, was nominated for album of the year, and is the second best-selling album of the new millennium. Its popularity emphasized the genre of British female soul singers and opened the door for such artists as Adele, Duffy, and Estelle.
Back to Black is classic from start to finish, starting with the catchy “Rehab”, which has the horns and feel of a Motown classic. The music is fresh, jazzy, and speaks of both playfulness and the pain of a rough life. Her vocalizations are remarkable, both effortless and pointed. The song “Back to Black” is a powerful and adult take on her lover (Blake Fielder-Civil) going back to an ex-girlfriend.
By 2008, Amy’s addiction problems only worsened, with canceled tours, additional drunken performances, and arrests for drug possession. She eventually actually entered rehab and was able to detox herself, after warnings from doctors that otherwise her health would end up being irreparably damaged. She continued to write songs for her new album while rehabbing, but on July 23, 2011, Amy passed away at the age of 27 from alcohol poisoning.
A collection of songs remained, both unrecorded and completed, some demos, some still in a pre-production form. Previous collaborators Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi worked with Amy’s family to select and complete the songs that would appear on her final album Lioness: Hidden Treasures (2011). How does it compare to Back to Black?
First, the album has a significant number of covers (half of the songs). Nonetheless, Winehouse’s versions of “Our Day Will Come”, “Valerie” and “The Girl from Ipanema” are all delivered brilliantly in her unique vocalizations and style.
There are impressive covers including her own “Tears Dry” from Back to Black, except this time in the form of a ballad. Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is performed with a percussive horn backing.
“The Girl from Ipanema” has a frenetic drum pattern but still embraces its jazz origins and Amy’s vocals are swirly and sexy. The classic “Body and Soul” is delivered as a duet with Tony Bennett. Her cover of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” is as soulful as anything she performed previously.
Of her original songs on Hidden Treasures, the cleverly titled “Between the Cheats” has a fifties-styled arrangement and speaks of the relationship with a two-timing lover. “Half Time” disguises itself as a tune about the structure and makeup of a song but instead is a sly suggestion of changing things up before the music stops. It’s one of the best ones on the LP.
“Wake Up Alone” is another beautiful arrangement, with Amy’s voice slowly echoing and fading at the end. Overall, the production value of this album is remarkable – the levels and the mix are all consistent despite I’m sure the variety of quality of the original recordings.
What does the final album Lioness: Hidden Treasures tell us about Amy Winehouse? It contains a significant number of covers, so in terms of songwriting, it’s only a glimpse in terms of what could have been, but her new take on these songs was interesting. Her voice was as magnificent and unique as always. The few originals speak of themes that appeared throughout her music: pain, longing, love, and loneliness. Maybe to a small extent what is lacking is some of the stronger, emotional, perhaps abrasive language and thoughts that appeared in Back to Black. These songs feel lightened for popular consumption, despite still carrying their baggage. Nonetheless, it’s a pleasant tour of remarkable talent and speaks of what might have been, which adds to the melancholy you will feel while listening to it.
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