As you may know, the British blue-eyed soul tradition fascinates me, mostly because it’s a re-interpretation of a foreign culture. Perhaps that’s both a blessing and a curse: white British soul singers have historically embraced soul music as their own, not viewing it as a “black thing,” as many Yanks would. However, unlike American soul singers, they often lack access to the rich black culture that fostered said tradition, and their soul can seem second-hand.
There’s nothing second-hand about Amy Winehouse. Like Mick Hucknall or Paul Weller, she gets R&B, and thus, she can use it to her own ends. Jon Pareles, my favorite New York Times critic, talks about Amy’s “soul pose” in his review of her recent New York gig.
Ms. Winehouse is English, and British soul singing has always been at least once removed from its African-American sources. It doesn’t have the foundation that American singers often get by singing in church, since British singers are more likely to learn soul style from their record collections.
Ms. Winehouse has grown up on hip-hop’s version of R&B, which chops the old dramatic arcs of soul and gospel into sound-bite hooks and showy, almost randomly applied slides and turns. Her voice glints with possibility: tart, smoky, ready to flirt or sob, and capable of the jazzy timing of a Dinah Washington or the declamation of soul singers like Martha Reeves and Carla Thomas. What she doesn’t have, and may not want, is the kind of focus the older singers brought to their songs. Onstage Ms. Winehouse added a British layer of detachment with a performance that switched between confession and indifference.
I think Pareles nails Winehouse here: as much as she suggests Motown and jazz, she’s very much of the hip-hop generation. Lauryn Hill comparisons are apt, but I think Amy’s real forebear is Mary J. Blige.
Winehouse is a more technically refined singer and lacks Mary’s tear-down-the-mountains emotionalism, but Back To Black owes a great debt to Ms. Blige’s work, her 1994 album My Life, in particular. Like Mary did with “My Life” and “All Night Long,” Amy re-interprets soul classics (like “Mr. & Mr. Jones”) to explore her own emotions. It’s not a coincidence that, in “Tears Dry On Their Own,” Amy samples the same Marvin Gaye–Tammi Terrell classic, “You’re All I Need To Get By,” that Blige remade with Method Man. It’s also no wonder that Winehouse is also being sought-after as a hip-hop collaborator, just like Mary.
I think Amy’s fabulous, and Prince obviously does, too. Amy’s psyched that Mr. Rogers Nelson wants to duet with her: “I’ll drop everything to do that. Stuff like that doesn’t make me go, ‘Oh I must be the nuts.’ Stuff like that makes me want to do this tomorrow, and the night after, and the night after. Now I want to find out how solid that is. I’d do it with bells on. All day long.” Who in their right mind wouldn’t?
You will also be pleased to learn that Amy received four nominations from the MOJO Awards, according to The Times:
Song Of The Year
Amy Winehouse – “Rehab”
Arctic Monkeys – “Brianstorm”
The Gossip – “Standing In The Way Of Control”
Guillemots – “Made Up Love Song No 43”
The View – “Same Jeans”
Amy Winehouse – Back To Black
Bob Dylan – Modern Times
The Good, The Bad, And The Queen – The Good The Bad And The Queen
Grinderman – Grinderman
Midlake – The Trials Of Van Occupanther