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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Amy Winehouse: Frank


AMY WINEHOUSE: FRANK (2003)

1) Intro/Stronger Than Me; 2) You Sent Me Flying/Cherry; 3) Know You Now; 4) Fuck Me Pumps; 5) I Heard Love Is Blind; 6) Moody's Mood For Love/Teo Licks; 7) (There Is No) Greater Love; 8) In My Bed; 9) Take The Box; 10) October Song; 11) What Is It About Men; 12) Help Yourself; 13) Amy Amy Amy/Outro.

I do not feel any great inner love for the voice of Amy Winehouse — an absolute prerequisite for being able to consider Amy Winehouse a (the?) Great Artist of Our Times. White people with black voices have always confused me: much too often, you get the impression that admirers rave about their singing simply because they happen to be white people with black voices. What about black people with black voices — what do they get out of it? Just because nature gave Amy Wine­house (or her equally famous, but far less interesting American "diva" counterpart, Ana­stasia) this weird mutated mix of skin color and vocal cords, we're supposed to go crazy?

Obviously, most critics will say that's not it, or not just it, and they will mean it, or they will pretend that they mean it. Of course not! Amy Winehouse doesn't just sing "in blackface". She's mixing old jazz and vaudeville with modern sounds. She writes catchy songs. She's an introspec­tive lyricist. She is, well, an interesting person — just look at her drug and her health and her personal life problems. She's a sensation in so many respects you don't know where to begin.

Maybe so. I think I do hear a new type of sound of Frank. It isn't necessarily a good type of sound, though. It's the sound of a young girl brought up in a jazz musicians' environment, soaking in the traditional jazz culture, and then selling it out to trendy dealers in modern sounds and pro­duction values. You could argue that Winehouse does to Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday much the same things that Vanessa Mae used to do (still does?) to giants of classical music. And there is, of course, no consensus on the validity, morality, or overall value of this approach.

The big difference is, Amy writes her own songs (or, at least, her own lyrics, with lots of help on the music from friends in the trade). Are they good on their own? To my liking, very uneven. Some of the numbers are almost offensively simplistic and catchy on the nursery rhyme level — these are, obviously, the commercial singles, such as 'Fuck Me Pumps', a song that I like to ins­tinctively tap my toes to but which, on the conscious level, only brings up negative thoughts. Mainly because of the lyrics. In the song, she is pouring venom on Paris Hilton-like (or, more precisely, Paris Hilton-wannabe-like) characters — she might as well skip the whole thing and go straight to shooting fish in a barrel. "Character assassination" songs are a tricky genre; just like there's a big difference between knifing someone in a drunken street brawl and an intricate Aga­tha Christie-style murder, so is there an equally big difference between "character assassination" à la Bob Dylan or Lou Reed, on one hand, and bazaar-squandering style lyrics such as featured on 'Pumps'. It doesn't help matters either that today, Amy Winehouse's main "claim to fame" is hardly her songwriting or recording, but rather all the tabloid stories. And besides, frankly spea­king, I do not even know what looks more ridiculous — the combination of "fuck me pumps" and Gucci bags or the combination of Mountain Girl-style hair and The World's Guide To Exotic Art in tattoos.

But enough of that, because 'Fuck Me Pumps' is, after all, just one piece of questionable commer­cial bait. The album compensates for this lapse of taste in many ways, really. 'Stronger Than Me' is enjoyable R'n'B with Amy picking on her lyrical hero for not being stronger than her (now that I can believe); 'You Sent Me Flying' has an excellent combination of minimalistic piano and angelic beauty in the chorus, and also gives us a very rare glimpse of Amy's falsetto, which I believe she should show us more often; 'What Is It About Men', with its lazy mid-tempo, gloomy wah-wahs, and depressive lyrics, refreshens my memories of Portishead; and I am totally deligh­ted by the self-ironic, half-serious, half-joking album closer 'Amy Amy Amy' ('where's my moral parallel?' she asks rhetorically). For every highlight or two, there is a piece of boring jazz muzak filler, but the high points prove that there is much substance, and better substance, beyond the singles and the videos.

Finally, about the sincerity of it all. Apparently one of Amy's major idols is Billie Holiday — someone who's gone through more suffering in her pre-success years than Amy is guaranteed to go through in all her life. It is therefore obvious that, no matter how much the latter is willing to mold her life and art in the image of Billie, it will always be fake to a certain degree. After all, the main trouble of artists that emerge today (Western, at least) is that they're all well-fed, well-dressed, have roofs over their heads, and are fully literate, and have been that way since the day of their birth. That doesn't count as a healthy presupposition to making great art.

So, just as one has to resort to "artificial" working out in order to compensate for the modern sedentary lifestyle, so does today's artist resort to finding out different ways to suffer in order to produce fuel for his/her art. Of course, one shouldn't go too far: for instance, giving away all your property to the poor wouldn't work, because it would take away your resources for marketing your music (and besides, shouldn't you get at least a little something in return for all the suffe­ring?). Therefore, there are but two easy ways to suffer. One is to sculpt yourself a dramatic love history, at a rate of about one breakup per year to keep thoughts fresh and feelings sharp. The other, of course, is to destroy your body through various unhealthy lifestyles. This may seriously endanger the longevity of your career, of course, but what with the medicine of today making such great strides and all, this risk is considerably lower than it used to be.

This should have served as a prelude for writing Amy Winehouse off as a fake like so many others, but now that I have seriously listened to Frank, I don't believe I'm in a position to do that. There really isn't that much suffering on the album, certainly not as much as an appalled Pitch­fork review of this album would have you believe. She is, after all, no Tori Amos. There's plenty of simple, unassuming love songs; there's a ton of extra- rather than introverted material, as if she were speaking to you, the listener, of your problems, rather than her own; and there really is not a single song that would straightforwardly fall under the definition of "self-pitying" — even 'Amy Amy Amy', like I said, is more humorous than depressive.

So there's no point to getting turned off by Frank. It's an interesting record by a young girl who likes jazz and her jazz idols and is happy to try her hand at it without sounding too retro. It's not a masterpiece, and I don't believe it will endure (Back To Black has a better chance), but by my third listen, I managed to pacify my brain about it, and get my heart enlivened by some of it, and if there's anything more to be expected out of it, I don't know what it is and I don't really need to know. As for the thumbs, they prefer to remain in a strictly horizontal position.

P.S. For the record, there are two hidden tracks after 'Outro' (no great shakes, although 'Mr. Magic' is kind of cute), and there is also a "deluxe" edition of the album with a second CD of demos, outtakes, and live versions that is strictly fan-recommended.

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