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Amy Winehouse – Lioness: Hidden Treasures

on December 09, 2011, 8:00am

When Amy Winehouse died from complications of ingesting too much alcohol this past July, she unknowingly became part of a sad and mysterious club of troubled musicians. Like Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin before her, the retro songstress plagued by substance abuse problems passed on at the age of 27.

Winehouse only released two albums during her lifetime, but still managed to become one of the most celebrated and criticized artists of the last decade. Celebrated for 2006’s fantastic, soulful, and sexy Back to Black and criticized for her questionable life choices, which included smoking crack and running amok with her onetime husband and fellow troublemaker Blake Fielder-Civil. That during the last years of her life she became more recognized for her antics than her musical output or viability as an artist is more or less inarguable. And this is essentially the whole point of Lioness: Hidden Treasures.

Her family and friends, including producer/collaborators Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, have selected a handful of songs ranging from covers to demos to duets, spanning the young singer’s entire career. It is their way to honor and pay tribute to Winehouse’s music and life as opposed to her unflattering behavior and untimely death. Unfortunately, although expectedly, this ragtag selection underwhelms when compared to her other work.

That’s not to say there isn’t valuable stuff here. There are even, as the album title suggests, a few treasures. Some of the most notable moments being when Winehouse teams up with Ronson and rips it. On The Shirelles’ classic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”, her voice sounds so at home over Ronson’s dramatic production and cracking snare drum that it’s almost possible to forget that the song isn’t hers. Similarly, an alternate take on “Valerie”, a song by English band The Zutons that Ronson and Winehouse originally covered for Ronson’s 2007 album, Version, has an extra kick of Motown swagger and soul, helping drive home the notion of where Winehouse’s bread-and-butter as a singer lies. This was a girl born into the wrong musical era.

And while these covers are the album’s most fun, its most impressive moment and best argument for Winehouse’s artistic ability is “Between the Cheats”, which she co-penned with Remi. She convincingly sings—more like aches—about her husband’s abilities as a lover and the way he could make “this housewife blush” over doo-wop piano and a shuffling bass line. It’s such a heartfelt performance and well-crafted piece of pop that even the title’s pun works perfectly, especially given the knowledge of her fractured romantic relationships. If there is one track on the album that is going to have listeners longing for and missing her, this is it.

However, after these moments, we’re left with a lot of unbalanced material. A fan of hip-hop, she teams up with rapper Nas on “Like Smoke”, where she repeats a forgettable chorus between his political rhymes. It’s not horrible, nor is it very good, just confusing, and ultimately unnecessary. Another duet goes completely in the other musical direction as she trades verses with octogenarian crooner Tony Bennett on “Body the Soul”. This partnership actually makes more sense than the one with Nas, but the result is tepid and no more impressive. Winehouse even takes a crack at the bossa nova staple “Girl From Ipanema”, which should be right in her wheelhouse, but somehow comes off forced and even a little bit grating as she unconvincingly scats her way to its finish.

A posthumous album like this is difficult to critique because it’s not really an album at all. It’s a time capsule or snapshot, and one that its subject ultimately didn’t have any final input on. Winehouse was an undeniably gifted singer and a unique talent. There are pieces of Lioness that reflect that clearly, and others that don’t do as good a job.

She didn’t have the quantity of musical output or the artistic impact of the other members of the eerie club that she became a part of when she died, but when you listen to original versions and recordings of Back to Black tracks “Tears Dry” and “Wake Up Alone” on Lioness, it’s hard not to wish we could find out if she would have.

Essential Tracks: “Between the Cheats”, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”

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