Girl groups gone wild

Amy Winehouse takes cues from Spector and Motown but adds her own bad-girl lyrics

by Sara Nicole Miller

Thank God (and the Queen) for British tabloid culture. Unlike their silly American counterparts, who find playground photos of Brangelina children cover-worthy, the paparazzi across the pond aren’t afraid to print the money shots – literally: Cocaine Kate and Pete Doherty with banknotes up their noses are newsstand commonplaces.

Amy Winehouse
ALBUM: “Back to Black”
LABEL: Island

Brit soul vocalist Amy Winehouse has recently bumped the scandalous couple out of the public hot seat. She makes about as much a scene with her tabloid bonanzas as with the release of her second album “Back to Black.” Allegedly, Winehouse threw up halfway through the first song at a nightclub gig and had to cancel the show. She also shed huge chunks of weight, joining the likes of Nicole Richie’s broomstick-body aesthetic.

But even for a lady whose music has reinvigorated vintage soul for a new era, you’re not sure whether to laugh at her drunken and disorderly musical rhapsodies or FedEx her a prescription of Antabuse tablets.

Perhaps everyone’s just too hard on her. After all, Winehouse – loosely clumped in a proverbial petri dish of female artists from the British white soul movement – doesn’t exactly fit the cutey-patooty Joss Stone archetype we’ve come to expect; she even makes Lily Allen look like a Westminster choirgirl. Winehouse, the dark star chanteuse from North London, isn’t your average old-school diva. She’s bold and saucy, with bee-hived black hair, drag-style eyeliner and a tattoo of a pinup girl on her bicep: a glassy-eyed hybrid of Diana Ross and Morticia Adams.

“Back to Black” is her second album, following her 2003 debut “Frank.” The album is heavily saturated with 1960s jazzy pop and soul sensibilities, and she’s mentioned the Shangri-Las and Erykah Badu among her musical inspirations.

The album tells a tumultuous, topsy-turvy tale of love, lust and heartbreak, themes recycled from the likes of doo-wop and soulful girl-group genres. However, one whisper of her lyrics and it becomes obvious that Winehouse is not the usual apologetic, polite maiden of old Motown. Her voice, soaked in emotional and melodramatic poutiness, growls and purrs on the tracks as titillating horns and lazy, eye-twinkling retro melodies saunter in the background. In “Back to Black,” she retools classic, lush melodies into deliciously sullied tales of the London pub scene, and for that she makes no excuses.

On the track “Rehab,” Winehouse coos, amid a backdrop of Phil Spector-ish rhythmic horns, about an incident in which her management tried to get her to check into treatment, to which she replied “no, no, no.”

On “Me and Mr. Jones (Fuckery),” Winehouse wails,”What kind of fuckery are we / nowadays you don’t mean dick to me,” but all within the tempo of a swinging big brass band romp and doo-wop backup vocals. Even though her naughty lyrics and stylized aesthetics seem, at times, a tad incongruous, one thing is clear: The girl could make Insane Clown Posse lyrics sound sensual and thrilling.

The production, a hip-swaying compilation by both Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, is delightfully smooth, given just the right amount of fluff, chime and polished veneer for the real musical delight – Winehouse’s husky, gin-soaked voice.

If beginning and ending an album with tracks called “Rehab” and “Addicted” is a foreshadowing of things to come, Winehouse, of all people, seems most blissfully in denial. In her last song, “Addicted,” she proudly proclaims, in her signature huskiness, “I’d rather have myself a smoke my homegrown / it’s got me addicted, does more than any dick did.”

Amy Winehouse might live some of her life in a blackout, but she also wears all of her heart on her sleeve. And in a time when sugary, generic pomp is the feminine musical flavor of the day, Winehouse is a most unlikely – and much needed – queen of (broken) hearts.