British soul chaunteuse Amy Winehouse's Back to Black was pretty near the greatest thing I heard last year, so when her 2003 debut disc Frank received a proper US issue recently, I snatched it up in an eighth-of-a-heartbeat.
Frank really does feel like a dry run for its stone-masterpiece follow-up, but it proves that Back to Black was no fluke. Right out of the gate, Winehouse's acerbic lyrical stance--think Peggy Lee's and Elvis Costello's love child learning salty sexual bluntness from Peaches--had already emerged fully-formed. Whether she's dissecting a hard-partying club girl with Dorothy Parker straightrazor swipes on the hilarious "F*** Me Pumps" or kittenishly rationalizing a one-night stand to her cuckolded lover on "I Heard Love is Blind," Winehouse's observational and reflective gifts as a writer are staggering. Unbelieveably, she'd penned these intelligent and witty lyrics before she was old enough to even legally buy a beer in the States (she hit the ripe old age of twenty during Frank's initial UK release, and looks even younger in the CD's cover photography).
This debut sports a wider sonic pallate, too: In addition to the sixties girl-group nuances that infused Back to Black, Frank also spotlights a lean seventies vibe on the wah-wah guitar glide of "What is it About Men?", some jazzy scatting on "Stronger Than Me," and an irresistible Cab Calloway gallop on "Amy Amy Amy." The songs are uniformly solid, but the masterpiece to these ears is "In My Bed," a tumultuous kiss-off that sends a sampled club groove square into pop heaven with lush backing vocal harmonies, real bongos, and a gorgeous woodwind solo straight off of a Sergio Mendes record.
The closest thing to a bummer on Winehouse's debut--and after Back to Black I NEVER thought I'd say this--is her singing. All over Frank she launches into the upper tiers of her vocal range with total abandon but precious little control. Her smoky lower register remains her undeniable strong suit, so hearing her stab at some soaring virtuoso vocal run (or as one of my friends likes to dub it, the Up-Down Vocal Thing) in a timbre that invites comparison to a toddler's extra-petulant whining can be a bit much sometimes. It was enough to make my wife--an avowed fan of Back to Black--cry uncle after just a few songs.
The upshot of this occasionally grating delivery is that it just hammers home how much the English soul girl learned between her first and second albums. There's not a note oversung, not an instant wasted vocally on Back to Black--which means that by age 24 she'd become a total master of nuance, was completely aware of her strengths as a singer, and had the songwriting chops to back up that vocal assurance in spades by writing/co-writing another ace set of tunes. Would that she could get her personal act together with the same sure hand.