Album Review: ‘Lioness’ by Amy Winehouse

kimberlee rossi-fuchs looks at the posthumous album from Amy Winehouse …

Not long after Amy Winehouse’s untimely, though perhaps not surprising, death at age 27 this past summer, hopeful rumors began to surface that she had left behind some uncovered gems to supplement her tragically scant body of work. Despite the fact that the last few years of her life had been spent more in bars, courtrooms, and rehab facilities — essentially anywhere but the recording studio — I held out hope that Winehouse had some secret, Tupac-like stash of inexhaustible new tracks and that the promised third and final album would match the magic of her earlier works and serve as a fitting coda to a her brief, yet brilliant career. That album, Lioness: Hidden Treasures, was released last week and unfortunately, it’s a huge disappointment. Essentially a glorified B-side album of promising, yet amateur, early works, covers, demos, and alternate takes, Lioness fails to offer anything new or illuminating. For Winehouse fans, it’s the musical equivalent of a half-drunk beer with a cigarette butt floating in it -– the party’s over and all that remain are the dregs.

The marketing for Lioness has been a bit misleading, as it doesn’t represent a cache of new songs intended for a third album, but rather a collection of tracks largely recorded between 2002 and 2004, when a then-teenage Winehouse was recording her first album, Frank. Many of these songs paint a picture of a promising, yet immature artist, still trying to figure out her voice and image. Winehouse’s jazz roots are evident in the cool “Best Friends, Right?” (about a frenemy whose presence is only tolerable when stoned), where she infuses lines like, “You don’t want me in the flat when you’re home at night/But we’re best friends, right?” with sass and wit. “Our Day Will Come” is another standout and one that perhaps captures the beginnings of the artist Winehouse would later become, melding her love of both reggae and doo-wop into a sunny and charmingly retro love song. Also somewhat successful is Winehouse’s cover of The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” An acoustic version has been available on the internet for a few years now, and while the very same vocal track is used here, the simple acoustic backing has been replaced by an overwrought Ronson production, which serves as a detriment to Winehouse’s stunning performance.

A major problem with the album is that a lot of the tracks included simply feel like filler. We’re given alternate takes of several of Winehouse’s hits (“Tears Dry,” “Wake Up Alone”) for no reason other than we haven’t heard these particular versions yet — they don’t provide anything new or interesting, just induce nostalgia for the originals. “Valerie,” while a decent performance, is slowed and stripped down here, allowing Winehouse to engage in some unnecessary melisma and robbing the track of the Motown-esque buoyancy that made it so fantastic in the first place. Further indicating a lack of usable material is the inclusion of a 2002 rendition of “The Girl From Ipanema,” a song which should only be covered in earnest by American Idol contestants. Yes, Winehouse’s vocals are technically proficient — though her Betty Boop scatting is a bit grating – but it’s almost like including a fourth grade talent show performance of “On My Own” from Les Miserables.

Unfortunately, the few actually new songs included on Lioness are more disappointing. The freshest track on here is the dusty old standard “Body And Soul,” Winehouse’s creepy 2011 duet with a nearly 90 year-old Tony Bennett, which is about as romantic as a zombie mating call and just as listenable. “Between the Cheats,” an original Winehouse composition recorded in 2008 as a possible track for her third studio album, has some charms, but the doo-wop touches are much too-on-the-nose and missing the grimy sass, soul and wit that imbued Back To Black with such freshness. Factor in Winehouse’s lazy, possibly inebriated vocals and the song feels like a drunken karaoke performance. On the 2008 Nas duet, “Like Smoke,” Amy’s voice is just that, but her sultry, meandering hook isn’t catchy enough to elevate a totally forgettable Nas track beyond the realm of mediocre.

By far, the worst moment on the album is its final track, Winehouse’s cover of Donny Hathaway’s “A Song For You,” recorded in the spring of 2009, during perhaps the nadir of her downward spiral. Winehouse’s slurred enunciation and off-key warbling render practically every word indecipherable and unlistenable and provide a sharp contrast to the beautifully pure and raw young voice featured in the album’s earlier tracks. “A Song For You” doesn’t evoke images of the cool, sultry, and talented Winehouse who took the music world by storm, but rather the tragic figure of tabloid and disastrous performance fame. Sadly, it is not just Lioness, but also Winehouse’s career that thus end on such a disappointing note, her dreadful, incompetent cover providing a final snapshot of a wasted talent.