UK’s exotic beauty Amy Winehouse is a jazz-soul singer with a saucy attitude and the jugular action to match it. Her music has classic jazz infractions that rival Louie Armstrong, urban-swing with the vigor of Jackie Wilson, magnetic neo-soul articulation that punctures like Ronnie Spector and Jill Scott, and shadows of Motown’s irresistible funk grooves recalling Berry Gordy’s hit makers The Miracles ("Shop Around"). Compounded by husky vocal textures that move like Macy Gray’s stylized elocution, Winehouse has a package that blends the classic world of jazz with the contemporary world of urban grooves. The story behind her attraction to jazz begins in her youth, growing up in Enfield, the Southgate section of North London, in a family suffused with jazz musicians from her parents and grandparents to her aunts and uncles. Jazz artists gave her the means to curl her voice around words and give them articulation by exaggerating certain notes to accentuate the syllables. Her music shows multiple generations and levels of jazz from classic to Motown and swing to urban-pop with a gritty guttural intonation in her singing.
Winehouse’s sophomore release Back To Black on Universal Republic Records is the follow up to her 2003 debut disc Frank. For Back To Black, she returned to her producer from the Frank album Salaam Remi (Fugees) and rendered the services of record producer Mark Ronson (Lily Allen, Christina Aguilera). The outcome is a brassy mix of lively horns and titillating snare drum taps recalling the jazz-funk spurs of ‘60s Motown and the emotive voicing of modern day soul singers. Tracks like "You Know I’m No Good" and "Just Friends" have a gut instinct for the vocal melody as Winehouse’s vocal movements plunge in and around the rhythmic grooves. There are numbers with rhapsody blues elements and soft swing like the title track and "Love Is A Losing Game," and neo-soul vocal intonations on songs like "Tears Dry On Their Own" and "Some Unholy War." Her smoky blues vocals on "Wake Up Alone" have increments of torch song shadings, and the jazz-funk additives on "He Can Only Hold Her" have a Motown sound. The bonus track allows Winehouse to show her misty lounge singer side which carries a Nina Simone solace quality.
Winehouse’s lyrics have a Billie Holiday likeness mulling over the struggle between being strong and feeling weak. Winehouse has battled her own demons feeling weak and being dependent, in particular, on men and alcohol. She tells on her website that her song "Rehab" is based on a true experience. In 2006, her management company suggested that she go to rehab for alcohol abuse, but instead she fired her managers and wrote about the experience which became a hit for the album in the UK called "Rehab." Her lyrics and vocals have a despondent edge and yet a desperate need to be seen as good enough, like in her song "Me & Mr. Jones" which is about a guy who is messing with her oscillating between liking her and not liking her. Not much has changed since Billie Holiday sang about the same guy back in the ‘50s. Winehouse’s lyrics are about the human struggle for appreciation and battling the craving for love that won’t come to you, so you end up replacing the need by filling the void with destructive behavior to nourish you, which never does.
Amy Winehouse’s album hits home. The songs touch that sore spot which people don’t want to admit they are nourishing with improper and inadequate provisions, taking them back to being in the dark or black as the title of the album indicates. Winehouse shows a true appreciation for classic jazz and urban swing influences in her music. It’s an album that revels in timeless songs. Winehouse is a saucy gal with the jugular chops of Louie Armstrong and the vocal elocution style of Macy Gray. She has a full package that makes good use of the past and brings it into the present.