She looks like Polly Jean Harvey and sounds like Shirley Bassey, and her repertoire is comprised of songs with titles like “Fuck Me Pumps” and “In My Bed.” So it’s only fitting that Amy Winehouse’s rowdy public behavior would cause about as much of a stir in the UK tabloids as her music has among tastemakers. After her management tried to lure her into alcohol rehab, Winehouse penned “Rehab,” the lead single from her sophomore effort and U.S. debut Back to Black, which trades the smooth jazz of her first album, Frank, for a sub-genre that can only be described as what modern R&B might sound like if everything had evolved since the ‘60s…except music. These songs wouldn’t sound out of place on the oldies station my friends and I became enamored with while driving around town as teenagers—with the exception of the lyrics, of course: “What kind of fuckery is this?/You made me miss the Slick Rick gig,” Winehouse laments on “Me & Mr. Jones” (“Oooh, Slick Rick!” the faux girl-group back-up singers croon longingly). The effect is not unlike The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, Winehouse’s balmy alto evoking the missing-in-action Fugee on tracks like the pulsing reggae groove “Just Friends.” But Winehouse and company (Salaam Remi, who produced both Frank and The Fugees’ The Score, and DJ Mark Ronson) aren’t just expert mood-setters or crafty reconstructionists. Winehouse is a student of the blues—she grew up listening to jazz greats as well as American hip-hop—and her ear for poetry is more than apparent on the title track as well as “Wake Up Alone”: “He is fierce in my dreams, seizing my guts…Soaked to his soul, he swims in my eyes by the bed…And I wake up alone.” Lily Allen can keep waiting in the queue. This is the UK import to watch.
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