Relatively unknown to the United States at the time, British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse released her second album, Back to Black, in March 2007. As Winehouse was inspired by the girl groups of the 1960s, the album is buoyed by classic jazz and soul with light ska and jazz influences, not unlike the classic Phil Spector wall-of-sound productions that were released during this period. The album was critically applauded and was named a classic must-have only months after the release.
Nostalgia aside, the album was a very focused, modern and current record for music lovers of any major genre to appreciate. Winehouse wrote all of the 11 tracks while the production duties were almost evenly split between famed R&B/Hip-Hop veteran Salaam Remi and British DJ/production wizard Mark Ronson. Both producers take Winehouse to revisit the glory of Motown in its heyday, while still bringing a fresh taste of the current music scene to the fore.
In a similar fashion to her previous album Frank, Back to Black offers an honest account of the complexities of fidelity and pride, the wit of a strong and almost stubborn personality and the miseries of bittersweet love. There is a vivid sexuality and candidness that is strikingly tender and is nothing short of mesmerizing. She croons and sulks, sucks her teeth and scowls, laments and serenades – all while baring her heart on her sleeve.
Lyrically, there is much to take in. Her passionate eye for observing details is wisely documented in her strong songwriting skills. Her knack for producing simple yet effective melodies are can be easily relatable to the listener. For all we know, it could have been a song she wrote about an instance that has happened in any one of our lives.
The brassy “Rehab” is a bold statement in itself. Winehouse cleverly satires the reaction of her closest business partners and family members during an intervention about her escalating alcohol habits (a habit she relies onto and often alludes to in many of the other album tracks). In turn, she defiantly declares her refusal for help, stating that she would rather “be at home with Ray [Charles]” because there is nothing that a rehabilitation center can teach her “that she can’t learn from Mr. [Donny] Hathaway”. A topic not tackled in a conventional pop song in recent memory, the track surprisingly works with its undeniable hook, skittering drums and shuffling keys.
Continuing with the striking tell-it-like-it-is honesty, “You Know I’m No Good”, finds Winehouse confessing to a lover of sleeping with an ex-boyfriend as she had previously predicted that she would before. Her lyrics are seamless and so meticulously delivered from verse to chorus that you are almost set in the eloquent visual vignettes that she maps out musically.
But when she isn’t sarcastically serving her opponent (and herself) with deprecating humor and wit, Winehouse spends much of the album analyzing her more pressing matters in her personal relationships with men.
The emotional centerpiece of the album is in the three middle songs. She states the running theme of the album on “Love Is a Losing Game” – a somber ode to the finality of a failed relationship. The sweeping and swelling strings are complimented with Winehouse’s naked vocal delivery and phrasing that channels the late DinahWashington. “Over futile odds and laughed at by the Gods…and now the final frame – love is a losing game,” she sings with a tender sincerity that pierces through to the very core of the listener. Contrasting this is the upbeat “Tears Dry on Their Own” which reprises a sublime “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” loop as a backdrop for Winehouse to specify her declaration of optimism, despite going over the numerous reasons why a particular relationship floundered. Though she admits “we never had it all, we had to hit a wall,” the song essentially finds Winehouse looking to days ahead with a sense of hope. The tempo slows with “Wake Up Alone” which dissects and details hitting the emotional low of attempting getting on during a typical day and night without having her loneliness consume her. “This face in my dreams seizes my guts, he floods me with dread. Soaked in soul, he swims in my eyes by the bed. Pour myself over him, the moon spilling in…and I wake up alone.” It is one of the chilling and darkest moments in the course of the entire album.
The most hope in Back to Black lies in the final two tracks, “Some Unholy War” and “He Can Only Hold Her”. The former is a mellow, late night assertion to her partner of undying love. Her dark vocal tones tumble like dice upon the moody ballad’s guitar licks, giving a new shade to the album’s atmosphere. The latter switches her role from first person to third, Winehouse seems objective when the “I’s” become she’s and the “you’s” become “he’s” as she speaks about a couple’s standstill. Possibly critiquing her own situation, the man is frustrated by the woman’s insecurities from a past relationship – “Now, how can he have her heart when it got stole? Though he tries to pacify her, what’s inside her never dies.” Laid against an uplifting, glitteringand melodious accompaniment, it is the album’s shining moment.
What made Back to Black such a masterpiece among music lovers and an experience among casual listeners was the honest look at the downside of love. If you take a comparative look at the songs on popular record, there is nothing that matches or captures the sheer genius of the record, stylistically, lyrically and/or musically speaking. Several critics lauded the blended styles of music into one piece that fans of different genres could appreciate singularly. Many other critics praised the creativity, the well-juxtaposed sense of humor and self to bare honesty in the lyrics that told stories and made people think about their own lives.
One of Leona Lewis’ biggest assets is her voice – a rich, honeyed vocal that can wrap its way around any lyric and instrument light years beyond any of her contemporaries. It has been the siren’s calling card since her stint on the original UK version of The X Factor and her 2007 debut album Spirit. That album, designed to update the MOR-schmaltz that Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston occupied in the 90s, wonderfully displayed her glorious pipes with worldwide hit “Bleeding Love”. After the relative disappointment of her last record Echo, Lewis eschews the chugging, formulaic throwaway ballads for tempo and small experiments with fuzzy electronics on her newest album, Glassheart. Lewis brilliantly teams up with producer Fraser T. Smith (Adele, Taio Cruz) to helm much of the album that takes a distinct foray into dance music.
The first single “Trouble”, co-written by Emeli Sande, is a sleek homage to Massive Attack-like trip-hop with a bed of swelling strings, chronicling an emotional break up. Both the single-worthy title track “Glassheart” and “Come Alive” are pacey, looming numbers – a wall of Lewis’ lilting vocals sliding against eruptions of volcanic, feverish beats. On “Shake You Up”, Lewis lets loose on the summery Rodney Jerkins-produced track which wouldn’t sound out of place on any of Rihanna or Katy Perry album.
Even when the songs venture into the balladry of her first two records, they are less meandering and more progressive. Both “I to You” and “Fireflies” channel her influences of Kate Bush and Tracy Chapman as she respectively evokes mournfulness and marvel into her performances.
Glassheart benefits from increased writing contributions from Lewis as well as an injection of her personality, two key aspects that have been eclipsed by her walloping vocals. She sounds engaged and exuberant, even on quiet and muscular ballads like track “Fingerprint”. The album is a unified set of songs from an artist who has finally stepped outside of her comfort zone.
Released independently as a free download in 2011, Toronto songstress Rochelle Jordan released her debut EP, R O J O – an adventurous, multi-layered joyride showcasing promise and an equal footing in the R&B of the 90s and the future. She makes a clear step forward with her second EP, P R E S S U R E, released digitally in August 2012.
As implied by the title, P R E S S U R E underscores conflict and tension, specifically in romantic relationships. Written entirely by Jordan and intricately produced by PROTOSTAR producer KLSH, the record closes in on a specific vibe, both sonically and vocally. Her influences are obvious – the fluttery coos of Aaliyah and the slick vocal layering of Amerie’s heyday, among others. Yet, Jordan manages to fuse them into a singular style and sound that is uniquely hers throughout the record’s twelve tracks. Meanwhile, KLSH’s minimalist and atmospheric productions are approached completely with swirling synths, pulsing bass lines and menacing, snare-driven drums. This provides ample room for Jordan to explore textures and rhythmic patterns of her detailed and impassioned lyrics.
The first e-single, “Losing”, is a downbeat lament to the sacrifices made in the name of a strained relationship. Equally alluring as it is chilling, it is a tender and deeply intimate moment that very few unsigned artists are willing to display in their early musical offerings. Elsewhere, Jordan aims to please her lover on the frenetic up-tempo title track, reminisces on a past love on “Could’ve Been” and is haunted by that same former love in a new setting on “Somebody”. Elsewhere, her frustrations with insecure and dismissive men are laid out with serious bite and sass on “You Ain’t My Man” and “Too Long”. However, it is on the spare “Shotgun” where Jordan wallows in the beautiful anguish of the end of a relationship, brilliantly winding up with what is the record’s best vocal performance.
Hailing from Toronto, home of fellow artists like Drake and The Weeknd, Rochelle Jordan is a welcome addition to those following independent R&B music and is sure to delight fans with her distinct sound.
After the success of her second solo album Overpowered in 2007, Róisín Murphy continued her forray into dance and electronica. Aside from two self-released solo singles (the moody “Orally Fixated”, and the menacing Detroit techno of “Momma’s Place”), she appeared on tracks laced by the Italian duo Crookers and house music pioneer David Morales, among others.
This month via , Murphy releases “Simulation” – her first solo single in almost two years. , the slow-burning 11-minute original mix swells with sliding and hissing hi-hats, classic disco bass and shimmers of silky fender rhodes, providing an ecstatic atmosphere underneath layers of Murphy’s cooing vocals, which exude a sexuality that is equal parts refined and orgasmic. Aside from the original mix, the EP also features a dub remix by New York tribal-house guru Eric Kupper. An additional mix is served up by Mano Le Tough, a stunning rework that cascades synths over layers of percussion.
After the success of the first single “Put It Down” featuring Chris Brown and it’s accompanying video which premiered last week, Brandy unveiled her anticipated second single, “Wildest Dreams”. Helmed by production duo Tha Bizness and written by Sean Garrett, the track is a mid-tempo 90’s throwback finds Brandy wide-eyed and blissed out after finding a new love that is seemingly too good to be true. “Never in my wildest dreams / did I think someone could care about me / not just the way you love me / you know I’m emotional (sometimes)…”. Her signature runs and walls of vocals weave themselves warmly around a thick bass line and lush keyboards.
The single will be released to iTunes and other digital retailers on August 28th, while her sixth studio album “Two Eleven” is scheduled for release on October 16th, 2012. The album is set to include production from Danja, Noah “40” Shebib, Bangladesh and Mario Winans, among others.