Back to Black

What’s with all the offbeat, retro-minded British divas hitting our shores? Do the pop-reggae Lily Allen, the folky Corinne Bailey Rae, the classic-soul Joss Stone, and the nouveau-R&B Amy Winehouse represent a new vanguard? Or is it simply that, with domestic innovators like Erykah Badu off the radar, nature abhors a vacuum? Is it a bandwagon effect from Gnarls Barkley’s ”Crazy,” last year’s offbeat and retro-minded (albeit American-made) pop-soul smash?

Clearly there’s a trend here. Winehouse, a 23-year-old North London bad girl who resembles a tarted-up Sarah Silverman, is already a tabloid phenomenon at home, where Back To Black, her second CD, hit No. 1 on the pop charts in January. And by most any measure, she is the best of the bunch.

First there’s her vocal style, which bears traces of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington in its jazzy phrasing and tonality. It was impressive on Frank, her 2003 debut, even if her melismata needed a shorter leash. But on the tougher, tighter Back To Black, her vocals are reined in and laser-focused.

Much of it is produced by Mark Ronson, a DJ and vintage-R&B fan who has also worked with Lily Allen. His ear for period detail is remarkable, and without leaning on old samples, he makes the disc sound like an oldies mixtape with hip-hop-minded beats. The Motownish single ”Rehab” chugs along on Wurlitzer organ, baritone sax, and hand claps. ”You Know I’m No Good” stokes a dreamy groove with old-school Memphis horns. ”Tears Dry On Their Own” borrows from the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell classic ”Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” And the title track conjures the Shangri-Las, despite a reference to the male anatomy that surely would’ve made the ’60s girl-group heroines blush.

It’s precisely Winehouse’s lyrics — smartass, aching, flirty, and often straight-up nasty — that raise this expertly crafted set into the realm of true, of-the-minute originality. There are moments when that originality flags with boilerplate lover’s bellyaching (”Love is a fate resigned/Memories mar my mind”). But Winehouse always surprises — dropping a sly reference to Sammy Davis Jr. on the doo-wop-flavored ”Me & Mr. Jones” or complaining to a girlfriend about the latter’s marijuana-grubbing boyfriend on ”Addicted” (a highlight of the U.K. release, inexplicably pulled from the American CD). All told, it’s a near-perfect set that declares not just the arrival of a fully formed talent, but possibly the first major salvo of a new British Invasion. A-

Back to Black
  • Music