She's only 23, but Britain's Amy Winehouse sings with all the pain—and power—of Judy Garland and Billie Holiday. Talent this big can't be rehabbed.
Amy Winehouse is an odd musical spectacle. She's a skinny, 23-year-old British girl who looks like she should be cooing ephemeral pop tunes, but instead, belts out deep, resonant numbers as though she's possessed by Etta James, Lauryn Hill and Judy Garland. It reminds me of those creepy moments on "Star Search" when a preschooler would practically bleed Whitney Houston, even though the only pain she'd felt came from diaper rash.
Winehouse has become known in England for her ability to riff about modern-day life atop 1950s-style soul and doo wop. She's a true blues and jazz crooner, but unlike Norah Jones, Winehouse possesses a punk-rock attitude. "Rehab," the quirky first single off her second album, "Back to Black," recounts the time when her management staged an intervention to get her off the booze: "They tried to make me go to rehab and I said no, no, no." Her voice is low and steamy while the music is catchy and upbeat, like an early Motown hit. Winehouse clearly feels drawn to the Smokey Robinson and Aretha era, but her own version of "Me and Mr. Jones" is hardly just another cover. "What kind of f—kery is this?" she sings.
"You made me miss the Slick Rick gig. You thought I didn't love you when I did. Can't believe you played me out like that." The contrast between her raw, post-hip-hop lyricism and the music should be jarring, but that combo—and Winehouse's amazing voice—are what makes this record so special.
As cynical and smartass as she is, you get the sense that Winehouse really does feel what she sings. A broken heart is clearly behind "Love Is a Losing Game." "Over futile odds, And laughed at by the Gods, And now the final frame, Love is a losing game." Her voice is so velvety rich here—and the music so suited for an old, James Bond makeout scene—that the song sounds like a long-lost Eartha Kitt classic.
So many new jazz and blues singers offer up the equivalent of sonic wallpaper—you know, those ultramellow tunes that play timidly in the background at restaurants and coffeehouses. But Winehouse has far too much personality—and ire—not to be noticed. She is a centerpiece who demands attention. Can you really afford not to listen.