Album Review: Amy Winehouse – Lioness: Hidden Treasures

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D+ | 12.06.11 | Island | MP3 | CD | Vinyl

It’s crucial to manage your expectations when approaching Lioness: Hidden Treasures, the first posthumous Amy Winehouse release. Winehouse, a first class talent who committed a highly public and protracted suicide that culminated with her death last July, deserves so much better than this. A hodgepodge of standards, alternate versions of her older songs, and a scant few new original tracks, Lioness would have been an interesting and somewhat illuminating bonus disc to an expanded edition of Back to Black, in an imaginary world where Winehouse were still alive. Instead, it’s being presented as a standalone collection. The timing of its release is dubious, its value questionable. But if you share my opinion that any new Amy Winehouse material, however inferior, is a good thing to have in your life, then Lioness is a meager boon.

Unsurprisingly, Winehouse’s death hangs above this mostly unexceptional album (especially on opener “Our Day Will Come,” which attains true pathos). Every word Winehouse sings, even when not her own (too many here are not), can’t help but gain poignancy by the tragedy. Indeed, her entire catalogue is retroactively colored by her unraveling. The days when we raised a celebratory glass and shouted “no, no, no” along with her are far behind us. It’s impossible to enjoy her music, which always foreshadowed her fate, without feeling complicit.

Amy Winehouse was a genius of vocal phrasing and reinterpretation. Her two proper albums Frank and Back to Black, steeped in the sounds of doo-wop, girl groups, and jazz, were more than just pastiche put-ons. Her music was both of the moment and of another era, a balance that many pop chanteuses try to emulate but never quite master. With her Ronnie Spector beehive and eye makeup, never a costume but a consequence of being born in the wrong decade, Winehouse lived, breathed, and wore her influences. Even on Lioness’ weaker tracks, such as the utterly out of place cover of “Girl from Ipanema,” one of Winehouse’s earliest recordings, she sells the well-worn as if it were a discovery of her own. Her deep soulfulness was far beyond her 27 years, for better (for us) or much worse (for her).

Sentimentality aside, Lioness does not stand up to the evaluation of a steely ear. Its first two tracks are the best. “Our Day Will Come” (a Ruby and the Romantics cover that sounds like an original) and “Between the Cheats” (a playful Winehouse original that sounds like soul classic) would have fit nicely on Back to Black. Amy Winehouse so thoroughly integrated the past into her pen that I often found myself returning to the liner notes to check the authorship of a given song.

Yet her two primary producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson take responsibility for sometimes lifting but mostly overloading these tracks. Of the previously released songs on Lioness only “Wake Up Alone” (notably produced by Paul O’Duffy), here presented bare, approaches the quality of its “official” counterpart. The sluggish takes of “Valerie (’68 Version)” and “Tears Dry” (Black’s “Tears Dry on Their Own”) are frustratingly inferior to their beloved siblings. Worst of all is Ronson’s reworking of Winehouse’s breathtaking acoustic cover of the Carole King-penned Shirelles classic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” which originally appeared on the soundtrack to Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. The horn-heavy arrangement found on Lioness is such a botch-up that its inclusion is baffling, if not blasphemous.

The rest of Lioness, though less offensive, is the stuff of B-side collections. The remaining originals (“Like Smoke” and Frank-era tunes “Half Time” and “Best Friends, Right?”) would have never made the cut on a true Back to Black follow-up. “Body and Soul,” Winehouse’s final recording, a duet with Tony Bennett also featured on his recent album Duets II, sounds perfunctory at best. Only Winehouse’s vocal, showing great wear, gives the track some perverse worth. She sings “it looks like the ending” and, sadly, she was right.

So Back to Black has become Amy Winehouse’s masterpiece, if only by default. It’s not a perfect album, but Winehouse didn’t live long enough to give us one. If the misnomer of a title given to this collection is to be believed, if these toothless songs are what pass for Winehouse’s extant “treasures,” then Back to Black will have to suffice. Still, I quote Amy in my profound disappointment: “What kind of fuckery is this?”

AMY WINEHOUSE - “Our Day Will Come”

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