Lioness: Hidden Treasures Amy Winehouse (Island/Universal)
Like a photo display at a wake, posthumous recordings confront us with images of vitality that have no living counterpart. The dozen songs on this disc have had a meaning imposed on them that wouldn't apply if Amy Winehouse hadn't died in July.
"Our day will come," she sings in the opening track, and you can't help thinking that her day was over far too soon, if it really came at all. For all the fame and fortune she gained from her breakout 2006 album Back to Black, there's no telling what other, even better things we might have had from Winehouse, if her addictions hadn't addled her wits and dragged her from this world at age 27. But Our Day Will Come, a hit for Ruby and the Romantics in 1963, has always struck me as a mysteriously bleak expression of future hopes. Winehouse's reggae-flavoured performance merely pushes that quality closer to the surface.
Only half the album consists of previously unreleased originals, some of which were finished by others after her death. As producer Salaam Remi said recently, this is not "a Tupac situation." Winehouse didn't have enough new material in hand to fill multiple posthumous albums, or even one.
Best Friends, Right? shows the cheeky, swinging spirit of her 2003 debut album, Frank.
"I can't wait to get away from you/unsurprisingly you hate me too," she sings, sounding coy and unconcerned at once. "But we're best friends, right?" The more recent Half Time is a superb smooth soul number in which light and dark alternate within a single phrase, sometimes a single word.
Between the Cheats, recorded three years ago as a possible track for a third studio album, is hampered by the rigid carapace of its fifties-style arrangement, and Winehouse doesn't sing the chorus – maybe because she didn't get around to recording one. Like Smoke, of the same vintage, features Nas rapping about events that occurred after her death.
A pair of demo versions of songs from Back to Black make for interesting comparisons. An acoustic version of Wake Up Alone gives the tune a new intimate sound; a slower first draft of Tears Dry on Their Own uses a chorus quite unlike (though not better than) that of the album version.
The covers include the duet with Tony Bennett ( Body and Soul), which is basically two singers exploring their own real and imagined corners of memory lane. Winehouse's opening phrases sound like she's channelling the later, life-battered Billie Holiday. For The Girl from Ipanema, she's closer to Ella Fitzgerald, and shows her jazz background in the way she swims easily across the beat. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? has an oddly martial arrangement, with snare drum hammering a hard rat-a-tat at the end of each bar. Someone should strip out Winehouse's great soulful vocal track and remix it to a more apt accompaniment.
The Zutons's tense rocker Valerie comes out as old-school R&B, with support from tactful bass, horns and electric guitar. The one must-hear cover is the album's closer: Leon Russell's A Song for You, with a colossal vocal performance and a recurring tight triplet in the descending bass that converts the song into a literal funeral march.
A spoken word extro, apparently caught on the fly in the studio, has Winehouse paying tribute to Donny Hathaway, another great soul singer who recorded this song and died young. "He couldn't contain himself," she says; and after a considered pause, offers an epitaph that could be adapted as her own: "He had something in him, you know?"
OTHER NEW RELEASES
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Live at the Royal Albert Hall Adele (XL) 3 stars
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El Camino The Black Keys (Nonesuch/Warner) 3.5 stars
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