AMY WINEHOUSE / “Love Is A Losing Game” (Acoustic)
Monday evening (2.11.08) at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Amy Winehouse won five Grammy awards, tying the record for most Grammys won by a female artist in one night. If you haven’t heard any of her music, you’re probably wondering, “Is she for real? Can she actually sing? Are her songs any good?” Or, given her virtually non-stop appearances in the paparazzi press for non-music related issues you might not even care. You might already be over her without ever having heard a single note.
Here’s a story. A couple weeks before Grammy night, my baby sister Tiaji called me. She said she was at a café getting a cup of coffee when she heard a very catchy song she’d never heard before. She asked the clerk who was it singing. They told her Amy Winehouse. Tiaji says she was shocked. Until then, all she knew about Amy Winehouse was Amy’s aforementioned personal problems (drugs, drinking, husband in jail, etc.) and her physical appearance (covered in tattoos, emaciated, huge hair, way too much makeup). “I thought she was a punk rocker or something,” Tiaji told me. “But this song was good! And it was R&B.” If I remember the story correctly, my sister bought Amy’s Back To Black CD that same day. Not only that, she told me (still sounding surprised even though she’s been listening to Amy’s CD every day for a couple of weeks now) she never skips any of the songs.
Here’s the deal, people. For once, the Grammys got it right. As a singer, songwriter and musician, Amy Winehouse is for real. As a person, as a mature adult, as a responsible citizen of the world, well…. You decide whatever you want to decide there.
Amy’s not the latest “hot” thing. She’s not a strong voice looking for a producer to turn her into an actual singer. She writes her own songs, she has a unique and interesting style and, yes, she has a fantastic voice.
The only problem I see is, if she keeps going the way she’s going, she’s going to wreck not just her voice and her career, but her life as well.
* * *
This being the Covers section, I’m going to hit you with three versions of the same song, a tune named “Love Is A Losing Game.”
I would call it one of the stronger songs on the album, but the truth is, as my sister Tiaji recently discovered, they’re all strong.
We’ll start with the album version. The record begins with an Amy Winehouse trademark: no intro. There’s only a brief drum breakdown and one bar of melody before Amy comes in, sounding as if she’s already mid-story. Actually, listening to the lyrics, you could say the story is over. What we’re listening to is a postscript; it’s a message to Amy from Amy explaining not just why it didn’t work out this time, but why it never has worked and never will. She’s not asking for another chance and she’s not looking for anybody new. “You’re a gambling man,” she says, “But love is a losing game.”
Note that the running time of this tune is only two and a half minutes. That’s pretty short but somehow there are actually two songs on the album that are even shorter. I have to say, Amy’s brevity aggravated me at first. Her songs are so good; I wanted them to last longer. In the end though, I got used to it. First, I noticed that Amy’s songs have no flab. Most of them start only shortly before her voice comes in and end virtually the moment she stops singing. The verse/chorus/verse portions of her songs are probably just as long as most pop tunes, it’s just that her songs are nothing but that – there are no solos, no long pauses, no excess at all. The other good thing about Amy’s brevity is the short running time of the songs actually helps to keep them fresh the second and third (and fourth and fifth, etc., etc.) time around.
Now let’s check out what Amy does with the tune live in concert. The arrangement of the instrumentation is identical, if slightly slower. Amy’s vocals are a lot like the album version too, although she takes some extra runs here and there. The biggest thing to note is how comfortable Amy sounds on stage. One of the tests for a young musician is whether or not they can do their thing live in the moment or if they require the comfort and trickery of the recording studio. As you can hear, Amy sounds just as good on stage as she does in the recording booth. (Of course, that’s only when she’s not drunk or stoned out of her mind. So if she comes to your town and you decide to go, be aware that you’re buying those tickets at your own risk.)
The last version, an acoustic demo that’s only available on UK pressings of the Back To Black
CD, is my favorite. Most of the songs on Amy’s album feature big, full productions – they sound something like Phil Spector as remixed by an eighties hip-hop DJ. But this one is nothing but Amy’s voice along with a guitarist picking out the chord changes. You can hear every nuance of every note. The recording is so intimate, you can practically see the expression on her face. It’s spare, naked and almost brutal in its honesty. It’s also one of my favorite recordings of the last few years.
Sometimes, while watching the Winehouse circus play out in the media, it’s possible to forget that, beneath the tattoos and makeup and booze and drugs, there’s a real person in there. A real person who is having one hell of time getting her shit together. Here’s to hoping that she does. I want to hear some more good music. And even more than that, even if she never sings another note, I’d like to see her start winning in the game of life.
—Mtume ya Salaam
It Must Be Me
I mean I know she won five Grammys and all. And I know don’t a week go by that she’s not featured in some media somewhere. But still and all, I ain’t feeling it like talking about it. Indeed, when I heard Back To Black
it was obvious to me that I must be colorblind ‘cause I was seeing grey, maybe even dark grey, but black???… I’m just saying.
It wasn’t until Live In Amsterdam
that I heard music from her that I dug, not in no “Awww Wow” way. No. More like, hey, that’s alright. I could listen to that, if I had to. The band was tight. The songs were tuneful…. Ya know, that’s another thing. She don’t stay in tune and can’t hold a note too long and… Let’s just leave it with I’m not really feeling it, although I do understand that she has sincerity by the truckload and projects deep emotions… I’ma stop.* * *
Now, there’s this other young sister. Laura Izibor. Straight out of Dublin, Ireland. Has a mixed pedigree. Does a soul sound. Is signed to Atlantic Records. Keep your ears open for this child. She just made twenty. Ain’t even got an album out yet. Just a demo of her and an electric piano in some joint in Dublin (may even have been a concert hall for all I know).
The EP, Live From Crawdaddy, Dublin
barely qualifies as a demo. She’s got that Alicia Keys vibe except she doesn’t play the piano as well as Alicia but I think her voice is stronger.
Whatever it is that elevates good to great, Laura has it. When I was listening to the EP, I said, it’s ok but…. Then I heard the finished versions of some of her songs and I said, “Oh, I see what the noise is about.”
What it is, is Laura is killing at singing pop music and injecting huge dollops of soul into it. Listen to the demo of “Mmm…”
and then hear the single. It’s an amazing improvement. Talk about covering your own bet and raising the stakes at the same time. Laura is going to be a pop sensation.
One mystifying thing to me is how a young soul singer from Ireland could have made the moves she has already accomplished and doesn’t even have a debut album. What moves? Glad you asked. She’s got songs on three major movie soundtracks and one on a major TV series.
is on The Nanny Diaries
is on P.S. I Love You
is on Tyler Perry's "Why Did I Get Married"
and the Disney Step Up 2 The Streets
. Television: "From My Heart To Yours"
is on Grey's Anatomy
and MTV's The Hills
on Welcome To The Captain
. That's some serious placement.
Who in the hell is repping her? Whoever it is got more weight than…. For example, Alicia Keys is in The Nanny Diaries and Laura gets to put a song on the soundtrack. Huh? How’d that happen?
More power to the young sister. Hope the success doesn’t mess up her head, ruin her talent. She clearly has it. I hope she can hold it and develop it.
Check out the summer funk of “From My Heart To Yours.”
This is music for the skating rink. And this other joint, “Carousel,”
is what they used to call number one with a bullet. Ain’t nobody would believe that comes out of Ireland.
BTW, her Irish accent is kicks to my ears. You don’t hear it much when she sings, but when she chats up the audience. Let’s just say it’s English of a whole different category. I’m saying that not because the accent puts me off but because you don’t expect a strong soul singer to talk like that. Anyway…
Her debut album is going to drop soon and then we’ll all know for sure. Don’t sleep. The name is Laura Izibor.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
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