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What's past is perfect for her brassy alto

The English singer's sound fuses jazz, rap and '60s Motown with her torchy touch.

March 17, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

That's when Winehouse's eclecticism came into sharper focus. "I stopped listening to jazz and hip-hop so much, and started listening to a lot of 1960s stuff -- jukebox music, really, because I was in the pub a lot, waiting for my friends to come in," she said. "When it came time to go into the studio, I knew exactly what kind of album I wanted to make. I went to see [musician-producer] Mark Ronson, and talked to him about what I was listening to -- really atmospheric songs -- and he came up with the title track."

Ronson remembers the encounter well. "When Amy first came to my studio, she played me a few Shangri-Las classics, one of which was 'Remember (Walking in the Sand).' That was the main inspiration for the song 'Back to Black,' combining the classic '60s soul sound with the desperation of 'My boyfriend broke up with me, I want to kill myself,' " he recalled when reached in London.

The song "Back to Black" could have fit on "Frank," but with Ronson's assistance Winehouse takes it into hotter climes. Ardor replaces her youthful cunning; she's more invested -- more, well, frank. Throughout the new album, Ronson and Remi, who returns for several tracks, help Winehouse find freedom where other singers would only manage high concept.

It's that unstudied effect that makes her vintage act so convincing. Even in full costume, she's not acting.

Knowing that such an intense embrace of the past can seem a little crazy, Winehouse downplays it. Of her retro look, topped with that massive beehive, she says, "I don't do that consciously. The bigger my hair is, the smaller my head looks. I have a big head!" She's equally cavalier about her excessive drinking, which fits her bar-moll image and has sometimes overshadowed her talent. She jokes about it onstage, dismisses it in interviews. And honestly, it's the least interesting thing about her.

What Winehouse must work to avoid, as much as that extra shot of Jack Daniel's, is the one-note quality that sometimes afflicts highly instinctive artists. If she wants to stay in her time machine -- and she says she's in no hurry to depart -- Winehouse will need to really think about, as well as feel, her sources. At this point, though, passion is her point, and it's what she finds in the past she loves.

"When I fell in love, I thought, 'I'm gonna die with you,' " she says of the man who inspired "Back to Black." "So much pop these days is like, 'What can you do for me? I don't need you. You don't know me.' Back in the '60s it really was like, 'I don't care if you love me, I'm gonna lay down and die for you, because I'm in love with you.' "

Romantic? Naive? For sure. But Winehouse really means it.


Amy Winehouse

Where: Roxy Theater, 9009 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Price: $18

Contact: (310) 276-2222


Where: Spaceland, 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday

Price: $15

Contact: (323) 661-4380

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