Amy WINEHOUSE’S private life might euphemistically be described as chaotic, but her release record was clean. Following her untimely though not wholly unexpected death this summer, her catalogue stood at two albums, one a credible showcase for a talented young jazz singer, the other a modern classic. Musically, at least, Amy Winehouse never blotted her copybook, which is part of what makes her slim legacy so alluring.
Given the creative strides she made between Frank and Back To Black, the bittersweet flipside is the inevitable curiosity about where this rare talent might have gone next. By all credible accounts, her long awaited third album was written but very little had been recorded as she battled her addictions – hopefully making the prospect of a grave-robbing succession of posthumous releases less likely.
Over the years, Winehouse sought assurances that certain recordings she had made would never be formally released because they did not meet her exacting standards. If her wishes are respected, Lioness: Hidden Treasures may well be the sole clearing of the Winehouse vaults. But history tells us there may be more to come.
The album has been curated, with the blessing of her family, by producer Salaam Remi, who worked with Winehouse throughout her career, with additional input from Mark Ronson, whose string arrangements were such an intrinsic part of Back To Black. As it is stuffed into the nation’s Christmas stockings, a portion of its sales proceeds will go to the Amy Winehouse Foundation, which may turn out to be a more fitting contribution to her legacy than this.
With only two new tracks to draw on, Remi has been compelled to delve into the past for content. The resulting collection is an inevitably bitty though still intriguing mix of covers, demos and alternative takes on much-loved Amy songs.
The souped-up demo version of Tears Dry shows off its roots as a ballad. Winehouse would later improve on this rather treacly retro easy-listening rendition. Although beautifully sung, the rueful sentiment is somewhat stifled by 5th Dimension-style backing vocals.
The original recording of Valerie is also a little slower and jazzier than the hit version, though just as full of playful relish. But the acoustic demo recording of the crestfallen Wake Up Alone offers the most exposed snapshot of the singer, shorn of her trademark lush production.
But what of the new material? Dating from 2008, Between The Cheats is an addendum to the Back to Black era in that the darkness of the lyrics, those that can be discerned (“I’d take a thousand thumps for my love”), contrast with the swooning doo-wop arrangement. Like Smoke, meanwhile, is a tantalising fragment of a song, comprising a nicely produced Winehouse refrain which has been fleshed out with a so-so rap by Nas.
Halftime and Best Friend both date from the Frank sessions, and I wonder why they didn’t make it on to that album, so consummate is the delivery. Even though Winehouse was still a few years away from her audacious peak, it is an unexpected pleasure to revisit that period. But it is the numerous covers scattered throughout the album which tell the most illuminating story of her development.
What is most striking about the album’s earliest recording, a scat version of bossa nova standard Girl From Ipanema, is how young and fresh Winehouse sounds. We have become so accustomed to addled Amy that it is something of a tonic to hear this demonstration of her potential the way Remi first encountered her as a teenager. But that is precisely what this is, a work-in-progress, rather than a great addition to her catalogue.
In contrast, the rapturous ska version of the Ruby & the Romantics hit Our Day Will Come, which kicks off the album, is Winehouse at her insouciant best, one of those remember-her-this-way moments.
Her version of girl group standard Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow has been given the big band, soft focus treatment by Ronson. But would Winehouse really have wanted to go down such an establishment road? Possibly, if Body And Soul is any barometer. This classy but conventional slinky jazz duet with Tony Bennett takes its place in history as her last ever recording – but it is not the last track on the album.
That accolade goes to A Song For You, recorded in 2009 with all the messy emotion and mumbled diction associated with her later years. It feels like an uncomfortable intrusion, compounded by the knowing inclusion of Winehouse’s verbal tribute to the song’s original interpreter Donny Hathaway as someone who “couldn’t contain himself, he had something in him”. In retrospect, this could have been her own obituary, a simple remark given weight here for what it represents in hindsight. Much like this album – significant because of what could have been rather than for what it is.