Back to Black
Every now and then, a heavily hyped album comes across the transom that stirs a great deal of ambivalence in me. Latest case in point: hot British import Amy Winehouse's Back to Black. When I first heard it, I thought: This is kinda neat — an English girl shamelessly reprising Motown and early '60s girl-group pop. Slight, but pretty cool.
But would it have legs? I had my doubts. After another listen or two in the car, Back to Black began sounding slighter and slighter. The weakness of several melodies became increasingly apparent. The single "Rehab," celebrated for is reckless candor, left my ears cold. Winehouse's voice — a brassy blend of Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey, with some jazz feel via Billie Holiday and the like — emerged as more and more affected, with a noticeably limited range. The production — with its horns, strings, vibraphone, tambourines, handclaps and such — started to sound as if it was lifted whole from '60s Motown and Phil Spector. I searched in vain for a shred of originality and decided that the album was a parlor trick, albeit a well-executed and occasionally entertaining one. Amy Winehouse was another white girl who stole the blues. I didn't go so far as trot out the minstrel allegations, but I felt that Back to Black was a fake and sharpened my knives to pan the thing.
Then I went to the headphones and lyric sheet. Turns out, the young woman has some things to say about crumbling relationships. They're not original ideas, but she expresses them in fresh ways. And I'm not talking about the explicit language, sexual frankness or supposed confessionals about her taste for drink and drugs.
Winehouse's best lyrics recast the sentiments of girl-group pop into smart, contemporary insights. In "Wake Up Alone," she tackles the notion of coping in the aftermath of a breakup. "It's okay in the day, I'm staying busy," she begins, and then explains, "I stay up, clean the house/ At least I'm not drinking/ Run around just so I don't have to think about thinking." She then ruminates on how things turn bleak at nighttime: "That silent sense of content/ That everyone gets/ Just disappears soon as the sun sets."
And because I'm a sucker for a clever line, I had to raise a smile over this from "Addicted," a scold to a guy who helps himself to her weed: "I'd rather have myself a smoke, my homegrown/ It's got me addicted, just more than any dick did."
Now that I've unearthed some authenticity in Amy Winehouse, I can appreciate a tender, string-soaked charmer like "Love is a Losing Game" — no matter how derivative it may be.
OK, so maybe I'm a flip-flopper. I'd like to give you a definitive appraisal of Back to Black, but my inner jury is still deliberating. 3 stars —Eric Snider
Peace, Love and Anarchy (Rarities, B-Sides and Demos, Vol. 1)
This leftovers collection culled from Nashville rebel Todd Snider's recent five-year tenure on John Prine's indie label Oh Boy Records has plenty to offer fans of the gifted wise-ass who wormed his way into the spotlight more than a decade ago with the parody "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues." Snider plays up the aging hippie thing for laughs on "Combover Blues," pays somber homage to his hero Jerry Jeff Walker on "Stony" and, with the gospel hymn "I Will Not Go Hungry," hits a false note that hopefully his most ardent followers will dismiss. My biggest problem with the infamously drug-addled troubadour is that to these ears, at least, his smarminess often outweighs his charm, making it impossible for me to fully accept his peace-loving, barefoot bohemian persona. Of course, hearing that Snider demanded rose petals on stage when he played Skipper's Smokehouse really made me loathe the prick. 2.5 stars —Wade Tatangelo
An old-timey folk band named after an ancient sea creature that predates dinosaurs? You got it. Trilobite's self-titled debut disc is a collection of highly literate, dark-hued acoustic tunes penned by author-turned-singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Mark Lewis. The Missouri native delivers his Southern gothic tales in a low, affecting whisper with loose harmonies issued by farmer's-daughter-sounding Michelle Collins. The Albuquerque, N.M.-based seven-piece also includes banjo, pedal steel, cello, violin, tuba, pump organ and a few other instruments that wouldn't appear out of place in the 1800s. But as compelling as the musicianship might be — and it often does ring brilliant — it's mere window dressing for Lewis' lyrics, which hook the listener with lines such as "I've got 40 acres of regret to see/ My profit loss has been on show for free." At times, there is a scholarly feel to the album, but the songs are not compromised — too much, at least — by Lewis' erudite cleverness. 3 stars —WT