Review Summary: Drunk Jewish girl knocks out more than just photographers with her stunning sophomore album.
What are the chances of two artists independently sampling the same relatively obscure ‘60s pop song at almost exactly the same time? They gotta be short, right?
Still, it happens. In 2001, British electronic acts I Monster and The Beta Band each recorded tracks with interpolations of ‘Daydream’ by the Belgian hippy group The Wallace Connection within weeks of each other. The vocalists used sounded eerily similar and, even stranger, the bands each attempted the issue their tracks as singles within weeks of each other. The melody itself was lifted from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake suite and the sample had been introduced to Britain by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, and the I Monster track, entitled ‘Daydream in Blue’ has since been itself sampled on Lupe Fiasco’s single ‘Daydreamin’.’ This, plus the likelihood that the two bands probably shopped in the same record stores anyway, this one can be chalked up to little more than coincidence.
But how do you explain this
one? The suave and sleazy face of Chicago soul John Legend and brash, inner-city Londoner Amy Winehouse each sample an almost-forgotten Stax take-off and release the tracks within a week of each other on opposing sides of the globe- that’s a little less likely. The sample in question comes from The Icemen’s ‘(My Girl) She’s a Fox,’ a throwaway ballad that’d be forgotten were it not for an early session spot by a very young Jimi Hendrix and is only really attainable on bargain-bin Hendrix compilations.
Legend’s will.i.am-produced ‘Slow Dance’ samples the guitar track and vocal chant, another example of the producer’s impeccable ear for a tune, while ‘He Can Only Hold Her’ from Winehouse’s Back To Black
crafts an entirely different tune with just the vocal track. Unlike Legend’s track, for Ms. Winehouse the sample serves as mere accompaniment, a sweet counterpoint to Britain’s latest tabloid diva’s harsh, slurred vocal performance. As if further proof was needed, Amy Winehouse is testament to the fact that almost every great female rhythm & blues singer is either a tough, southern black woman or a skinny white girl from London.
Amy’s recent resurgence may smack of a media campaign- the unresolved addictions, punching fans, the punk in drublicness, her fluctuating weight and rumours of bulimia make her the ideal target for the media to alternately laud and vilify- but, whether fact or fiction, Back To Black
is more than capable of standing on its own feet (which is more than can be said for its author.) Trading in the laid-back jazz of her award-winning debut Frank
for up-tempo urban soul and traces of hip-hop, and leaving contemporaries Joss Stone and Katie Melua in the dust, Winehouse teamed up with New York DJ Mark Ronson (Lily Allen, Rhymefest) and Frank
producer Salaam Remi (Nas, Ms. Dynamite).
In Ronson, she seems to have found a- excuse the pun- soul
-mate. The six Ronson-produced tracks are punchy and upbeat to match the blunt, aggressive lyrics Winehouse composes in the vein of Lily Allen and Ms. Dynamite, and the arrangements are nothing short of superb. There can be few left on the right side of the Atlantic who haven’t heard the massive single ‘Rehab,’ Amy’s wild assertion that she’d rather deny her problems and listen to Ray Charles records than set her ship straight, while follow-up single ‘You Know I’m No Good’ is a delightfully self-depricating ballad that falls somewhere between A Tribe Called Quest and Jeff Buckley with reference paid to the world’s greatest beer (Stella!)
The title track is the most seamless of all the tracks, in that it encapsulates all of the different influences fused on the album in one four-minute burst. The harmonised backing vocals recall Spector’s Ronettes, the multiple tempo changes bring to mind Stax and Muscle Shoals, while the disconcerting piano-led pulse and simple but affecting lyrics call to mind American and UK hip hop respectively, as a broken-hearted Amy tells her former beau “you love blow and I love puff,”
and adds, “[he] kept his dick wet.”
Remi’s half, while not quite as perfect, comes close. Less horn-stabbing takes place in deference to Nas-like ivory-tickling on the hilarious ‘Me & Mr. Jones’ (named for Nasir himself) which opens with the disarming question: “what kind of fuckery is this? You made me miss the Slick Rick gig.”
The aforementioned is a highlight, as is the half-rapped tempo-shifting ‘Tears Dry on Their Own,’ while ‘Just Friends’ is almost Beatles-esque with a hint of two-tone thrown in.
I’m always wary of proclaiming any album the “best of” anything, especially when it concerns a genre I have little more than a passing interest in, but Back To Black
is by far the best popular soul album I’ve heard this year, and a welcome addition to a collection which houses a number of players punching dangerously below their weight in John Legend, India.Arie and Anthony Hamilton. That she’s an actual living, breathing character and she’s all over my tv and newspaper is an added bonus at the moment- let’s hope she plays this one sensibly and doesn’t end up on Big Brother like that ponce from Towers of London.