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In what has become a depressing rite of passage, we can almost always count on a posthumous album or two (or 200, if you’re Tupac) within months of an artist’s death.
This time, sadly, it’s Amy Winehouse’s turn. Winehouse died July 23 of alcohol poisoning. Out today, “Lioness: Hidden Treasures,” compiles 12 previously unreleased songs, alternative versions and a few cover tunes recorded over the past nine years, including her last recording session with Tony Bennett on “Body & Soul.” So the question is which of these tunes are treasures and which should have remained hidden?
The album opens with Winehouse’s 2002 reggae-tinged version of Ruby & The Romantics‘ 1963 hit “Our Day Will Comes,” and with good reason. It’s the track where Winehouse sounds most coherent. It’s a lively, jaunty remake that showcases Winehouse’s love and connection to the singers from the ‘50s and ‘60s and her uncanny intuitiveness when it comes to capturing the sassiness and longing so prevalent in the female pioneers.
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She also tackles Carole King/Gerry Goffin’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” The version here owes more to the Shirelles‘ original recording than King’s, but there’s a militant drumbeat throughout the production that does it no favors. Winehouse recorded an acoustic version that appeared on the 2007 soundtrack for “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason” that is much more pleasing.
An alternate take on “Tears Dry on Their Own” shows how much the song transformed from this nascent version, here without the “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” base, to the much better final tune on “Back To Black.” It’s a fascinating example in how a song turns from a chunk of coal into a diamond in the hands of a talented producer, but it fails to illuminate anything about Winehouse. Conversely, a stripped down, slower version of “Wake Up Alone” captures the song’s inherent loneliness (thanks in part the brushes on the drums) more so than the take that appeared originally on “Back To Black.”
“Lioness” includes two tracks from what may have appeared on Winehouse’s third album: “Halftime” and “Like Smoke” featuring Nas. On the first, a ‘70s-sounding, languid, soulful track, Winehouse’s voice has none of the clarity and sharpness that made it so distinguishable. In fact, it pales in comparison to her vocals on “Our Day” here or on anything from “Frank” or “Back in Black.” She fares better on “Like Smoke,” with her jazzy voice and Nas’s throaty raps providing a certain leather and lace appeal. In true Winehouse fashion, she protests a little too much: “I never wanted you to be my man/I just wanted some company.”
The album closes with her cover of Leon Russell’s transcendent “A Song For You.” Longtime fans and Winehouse supporters will interpret her slurry take as proof of her jazz bonafides as she slithers in and around the notes. But what it really sounds like is that Winehouse is three sheets to the wind and several drinks past last call (not that the two interpretations are mutually exclusive). Regardless, the song is a reminder of not only her potential, but how her tremendous talent was extinguished way too soon because of her demons. Same with her cover of “The Girl From Ipanema,” which has her scatting in her best Sarah Vaughan imitation.
The set is unlikely to convince anyone new to Winehouse’s story of her true gifts. For that, any real Winehouse fan will steer newcomers to “Back To Black” or “Frank,” and leave “Lioness” for the diehards who revel in getting to hear their Amy one more time, compromised as she may be.
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of “Lioness” will to the Amy Winehouse Foundation, which loosely states its mandate is to help youth-oriented charities around the world.