Friday, December 16, 2011

What Did Amy Winehouse Do to My Song?

It's been out for more than a week, but I still haven't gotten around to listening to Amy Winehouse's Lioness: Hidden Treasures, which debuted this week on Billboard's Top 200 album chart at No. 5, with 144,000 copies sold in its first week.

Why the delayed reaction to "new" music from such a great singer? It's just hard for me to get into posthumous albums. I've never listened to one that impressed me much. I prefer to remember my icons the way they were, not via outtakes cobbled together for one final cash-in, or as many as can be milked from the musical vaults.

Winehouse's Lioness is certainly no Michael Jackson's Micheal in that it was put together by the late singer's two regular collaborators, producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, who received the blessing of Winehouse's family. But I suppose it's the lack of actual new material -- it's mostly remakes and alternate takes of previously released tunes -- that has kept it from being immediate required listening. I never considered Winehouse to be a particularly gifted interpreter of other people's songs -- her arch, slurred delivery works best when it's employed on her own material -- and I don't need "Best Friends, Right?" when "Best Friends" from Back to Black works just fine.

And if the one album track that I have listened to, a cover of Leon Russell's "A Song for You" that closes the set, is the quality caliber that I can expect from the rest, perhaps I will stick to Back to Black and Frank for a little while longer.

For the second time in a couple of years, a great singer and her producer have failed one of my all-time favorite songs. First Whitney Houston made it a dance floor stomper on her 2009 comeback album, I Look to You, and now Salaam Remi has mired Winehouse's vocal, which is strong but undermined by poor enunciation, in over-production.

Like Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" -- which was turned into a bombastic anthem on The Bodyguard soundtrack by Houston, who similarly overdid Russell's classic in a 1991 live performance (watch it here) -- "A Song For You" was written as an intimate declaration of love from one person to another and should be delivered that way. I first heard Donny Hathaway's version, which is perhaps the best known one, when an ex-boyfriend gave me a Hathaway compilation for my birthday a few weeks after we broke up. I spent at least an hour crying, not so much over the song as over the break up.

After my tears dried on their own, I pulled out Ray Charles' 1993 My World CD, on which he recorded what is my favorite version of "A Song for You" (and the first one I ever heard) and played it over and over. There's something about Charles voice, his special phrasing, that chills me to the bone. I still tear up when I hear him completely taking over "We Are the World" at the end of the song!

And listening to him tear up "A Song for You" alone in my room on that Sunday afternoon... Here come those tears again. This time, I wasn't even thinking about my ex.


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