In my customary backwards style (sac sur la tete, as I'm too polite to say), I've just come to Amy Winehouse's first album, Frank, long after hearing the second. It's a good thing too: Frank is not a major success but - with perfect hindsight - contains the roots of Back to Black's brilliance.
It's hard to pick out what is most distinguishing about Winehouse: her voice? her lyrics? her hair? The last is easily disposed of, circa Frank - her corkscrew curls have not yet been introduced to the electricity socket - but it's a tie between the others.
Her voice is what hits you first. As if Billie Holiday had been reincarnated in a north London taxi-driver's daughter, it is jazzy in excelsis. She can do the squeaks and be-bops of jazz, but she also gets the bluesy notes, and she has an almost-lisping, faux-naively-seductive rounding of her letters, like Marilyn Monroe or Betty Boop but from Harlem. (In fact, Betty Boop is currently her closest representative in reality, which is worrying.)
If you look back from Back to Black, she is not yet using her full range on songs like 'You Sent Me Flying'. There is too much in the heights without exploring the depths, the lower, smoother quality of 'Rehab' and 'Back to Black'. She did well to leave Minnie Riperton behind. The best example of her smoothness and vulnerability, her fine tone and rich voice was at the recent Mercury Music Awards:
The lyrics are the other stand-out. Happily these are still bitchy, witty and from the heart. Winehouse has the gift of rendering awkward situations from a recognisable 20-something life (recovering love-tokens from an ex on 'Take the Box', dealing with a weak boyfriend on 'Stronger Than Me') in extraordinarily vivid, apt, intimate terms:
I couldn't resist him
His eyes were like yours
His hair was exactly the shade of brown
He's just not as tall, but I couldn't tell
It was dark and I was lying down ('I Heard Love is Blind')
Or the lyrics shunned by a certain gin company:
You say why did you do it with him today?
And sniff me out like I was Tanqueray ('You Know I'm No Good')
Winehouse - who writes both music and lyrics - has gift for these well-turned phrases which stick in the memory; her words steer away from moons and Junes and baby/lady/crazy rhymes into the contemporary and unusual.
Unfortunately, the music is Frank's weakest point. Too often it is Generic Jazzy Backing Track No. 2, which in fact stands out for its blandness. On most of Frank, I was reminded of Mary J. Blige's My Life album because of this difference between the originality of lyrics and voice and the unrelated music; at least on My Life the samples were interesting. Having Mark Ronson on board as producer of Back to Black has solved this dilemma: his Motown orchestrations are the perfect complement for Winehouse's voice and a nice counterpoint to her pointed lyrics.
From Frank to Back to Black what's wrong has been fixed and what's superb is still superb. Back to Black is much more musical than Frank, but Winehouse's spark and spirit are just as present.
Stand-outs: on Frank, 'Fuck-Me Pumps', 'Stronger Than Me'; on Back to Black, 'Rehab', 'Back to Black', 'Love Is a Losing Game'.