Let’s admit it: We citizens of the United States only became obsessed with Amy Winehouse once we caught wind of her pro-drinking/shooting/snorting track “Rehab.” At the time, a flurry of heroin-chic Hollywood-ites were rushing to “rest centers” as if a month of sobriety were a day of strawberry picking. Winehouse’s track was about as refreshing and topical as a British track about the humdrums of secretary sex would have been back in 1998.
But before the metaphorical and drink-induced bruises of “Back to Black,” there was the mysteriously titled, “Frank.” The album was critically acclaimed in England in 2003, but record execs must have been biding their time until the cat-eyed chanteuse had graced a hefty amount of the U.S. gossip rags before deciding to re-issue the album here.
A casual listen to “Frank” could easily be reminiscent of the smooth, “life is sophisticated and sweet” Muzak that William Sonoma plays to get its customers in the mood to purchase exotic cookie cutters and collections of holiday sprinkles. The production is tight and catchy – a slick, minimal bassline, flutes skirting around a swamp-dirty saxophone – creating a breezy, holiday spirit vibe.
It’s exactly that interpretation that Winehouse either intentionally or unintentionally manages to peel away. A closer listen reveals lyrics that skirt from traditional blues heartaches to scattered anecdotal tales, reminiscent of fellow British rapper Mike Skinner of the Streets. In “Take the Box,” she sings, “your neighbors are screaming/ I don’t have a key for downstairs/ so I punched all the buttons/ hoping you wouldn’t be there.” Many tracks provide similarly styled lyrics that evoke flashbulb memories and glib confessions, often regarding the singer’s constant disappointment in the people around her.
“Help Yourself” is a track with fanfare horns whose cheery mood betrays the hopelessness of the relationship it discusses: “I can’t help you Ö and carry you/ even though you’re bigger.” The intro track, “Stronger than Me,” is another outlet for this sentiment, as Winehouse croons, “you always want to talk it through/ I don’t care.” Not exactly themes to buy Christmas presents to.
Winehouse’s efforts at pulling vocal jazz out of the clouds of simple audio pleasantries and into the quandaries of real life is reason for praise in itself, and the album delivers, thanks to the help of Winehouse’s voice that purrs as much as it wails.
But we must remember the voyeuristic tendencies that drew us into the Winehouse tornado in the first place.
In the last four years, she’s found concoctions to shrink herself that work about as well as Alice’s tricky set of pills in Wonderland. You can even watch a Youtube video of her pulling coke out of her hair and taking a demure snort mid-performance. How she let herself go down the path of the drug-riddled musical genius is a question too personal for listeners to discern (or interviewers, as she’s been known to fall asleep during Q&As), but “Frank” provides a startlingly compelling look at her pre-tabloid psyche. It would seem as if her struggle with the vices of the man who was her musical muse eventually led her to surrender to the same path of excess.
“Frank” is not only good musically, it’s somewhat of an anthropological relic for a case study of the triad closest to our culture: copulation, mind-altering substances and parent-offending music. Er, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.