Gilles Peterson took quite a shine to ‘Take The Box’, the standout track on Amy Winehouse’s debut album, ‘Frank’, and gave it a fair bit of exposure on his old ‘Worldwide’ show which was broadcast on Wednesdays at midnight on Radio 1. I used to tune in when I could – as a student it didn’t seem such a ridiculous time to be listening as it does now – and use a minidisc to capture any times when I couldn’t. For a while, it hugely influenced my musical purchases and I remember lapping up his numerous compilations, including ‘Worldwide 3’, on which could be found a fairly stripped back version of that particular Winehouse track. Not the cheeriest of tracks, it somehow ended up soundtracking that summer’s holiday and, while the album as a whole didn’t quite match up, it was clear that there was something special about this particular singer. I had no idea that a retro-soul sound wasn’t far around the corner at that point, but what a revelation that proved to be.
I remember being really, really unsure about ‘Rehab’ when it first came out. I couldn’t decide if its nagginngly insistent refrain was genius or overbearing. I couldn’t decide if the soul sound was authentic enough for it to go the distance. It did, however, make me bloody keen to hear its parent album. The first play of ‘Back To Black’ was enough to tell me that she had taken that big step from promising new artist to chart-shagging superstar. It is, as if you need me to tell you, a staggeringly classy collection of soul tracks, delivered with gusto by the Dap-Kings, Sharon Jones’ normal backing band, for whom they do sterling work every time they visit the studio.
The only thing I could find to dislike about the album was the truly appalling mastering on the CD. I’ve previously referred to the ‘loudness wars’ in which record companies and producers alike seemed to decide that volume was the key to making things sound good on iPods and car stereos. This album suffers more than most, with some tracks pop and mushing so much that it often veers on the unlistenable. Thankfully, along came a pretty bloody decent vinyl copy and I’ve not looked back. Cueing up ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’ before lowering the stylus gently into the groove is a great pleasure and one which I’ve been able to enjoy once more whilst writing this.
I’ve also greatly enjoyed bawling, “what kind of fuckery is this?” along with ‘Me & Mr Jones’, in which Winehouse somehow manages to make it sound like the language of all classic soul rather than something that might make Daily Mail readers sweat a little. What with the Motown rip-off, ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’, the aforementioned world-conquering first single and the gloomily great title track, it’s easy to think that this album is all about its singles. What makes ‘Back To Black’ truly great is that, although still sounding vibrantly modern, it hangs together like some of the great sixties soul records and it is really very hard to dig out this album to play one or two songs and not end up going from start to finish.
I’ve no idea if the high placing for this album will confuse or surprise a few of you, dear readers, but in the same way I had no issue with Lily Allen being at 12 with a record that’s only been around for less than a year, sometimes pop is world class. When it’s done well, we have to cherish it and treasure its presence in our record collections. Nigel Godrich may not have been anywhere near this and it was, in fact, largely steered by Mark Ronson – not a man greatly endowed with credibility these days – but it’s a phenomenally strong set of songs delivered by singer, all too fleetingly, at the top of her game.