Album of the Week: Amy Winehouse – Lioness: Hidden Treasures (Island)


It’s no easy task to build with odds and ends to create a cohesive body of work.  Somehow producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson piece together the essence of Amy Winehouse’s short and catatonic career on her posthumous release, Lioness: Hidden Treasures (2011).  Whereas Winehouse’s 2006’s Back to Black showcased an equal mix of weakness and strength, Lioness leans more on the star’s vulnerability – which may be fitting considering the circumstances of her tragic death.  Whether she covers Motown classics or sings duets with Tony Bennett, Winehouse’s knack for the sweet and bittersweet shines through on the album.  However, nowhere does the album touch the abruptness of tracks like “Fuck Me Pumps” (2007’s Frank) or “Rehab” (Back to Black).  In avoiding this abruptness on Lioness, Winehouse’s self-destruction (and eventual death) becomes clearer in focus: her old soul just didn’t fit into her tattooed flesh.

Lioness‘ opening track – a cover of “Our Day Will Come” by Ruby & The Romantics – begins with a simple melody over a jazz trombone and serves as a bullet to her enthusiasts.  She sings, “Our day will come and we’ll have everything / We’ll share the joy for only love can bring.”  You can’t help but feel that Winehouse lived a life of unreciprocated longing.

On the track “Valerie” (originally on the Zutons’ 2006 Tired Of Hanging Around), Winehouse inverts the gender roles of singer and subject in the style of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman” (1969’s The Guilded Palace of Sin). Gram Parsons sings, “A woman’s only human… / She’s not just a play thing / She speaks slow just like a man / If you want a do right, all day woman / You’ve got to be a do right, all night man,” as if he is absolving himself for being part of the male race.  Parsons’ vulnerability on this track is palpable, and his sensibility here is neither singularly male nor female but universal.

Similarly on “Valerie,” Winehouse takes on a male role, pleadingly singing, “Since I’ve come on home / Well my body’s been a mess / … / Stop making a fool out of me / Well why won’t you come over / Valerie!” as if she empathizes with the sensitive male who’s too afraid to toe the line of the masculinity that Parsons rejects on “Do Right Woman.”  While Parsons takes a Motown song and makes it country, Winehouse converts a Brit-pop whimsy into a funky Motown track.  It’s Winehouse’s insight as a transgressive and musical thinker that sets her apart from other modern artists delving into the soul and Motown genres.

Maybe it’s no coincidence that both Parsons and Winehouse lost their lives far too early as a result of substance abuse.  Both fused genres of music to create a new form – Parsons merged R&B and blues with country music, and Winehouse mixed soul, jazz, and hip-hop – and both highly identified with (and depended on) the opposite sex for approval and survival.  Many sources cited a fight with boyfriend Reg Travis as Winehouse’s impetus for her alcohol-induced death at age 27.  Parsons was only 26 when he overdosed on drugs and alcohol.  (Much of Parsons’ great music was a result of a partnership with the beautiful and seemingly pure Emmylou Harris.  Is Harris the idyllic woman for whom Parsons longs but knows he can never attain in “Do Right Woman”?  And is Winehouse naively imploring the same angel in “Our Time Will Come?”)

Lioness’ best track is the fittingly Winehouse-penned “Between the Cheats,” a doo-wop gem playing on the title of the Isley Brothers’ classic “Between the Sheets.”  Winehouse bares her bones as she sings, “I would die before divorce you / I’d take a thousand thumps for my love / … / ‘Cause anyone who will see us / Through our victory and done defeat / Knows that I’ll take you to the cleaners / If you come between the cheats.”  Here, she serves up her most vulnerable and fierce lyric, letting her lover know that she has him by the balls but hopes never to have to cut them off.  Is this not tragic love at its best?  Also, enjoy the new, slowed-down version of “Tears Dry,” which on Back to Black was titled “Tears Dry on Their Own” and spun off at an upbeat pace.  Lioness‘ version sees Winehouse crooning at the tempo of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Tracks of My Tears.”

Lioness comes out at a perfect time for those soulful dreamers with Christmas right around the corner.  Some families put on the classics and sit around the fireplace after filling themselves to the brim with turkey and stuffing.  Some families will go out to see a movie.  But some will put on that old-time, good-time music and let it spin on the record player until the needle runs off the edge and is still running.  Lioness is an album for the needle to find the rut.

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