This is a sad record. A grab bag of outtakes, unreleased tracks, demos, covers and song sketches, these recordings feel like a gut punch. They remind you, first and foremost, of that voice – one of pop music’s most instantly recognizable vocal imprints, a sound that leapt out of your speakers and seized you by the ears. Here, as always, Winehouse’s singing is both raggedy and dramatic, winking and insouciant, full of high drama and a breezy sense of play – sometimes all those things at the same time.
Listen to the deliciously easeful crooning in “Our Day Will Come,” a reggae-fied reworking of a doo-wop chestnut, recorded in 2002. Or listen to “Half Time,” also from 2002, a sultry ode to the pleasure of sultry music – “When the beat kicks in/Everything falls into place” – with Winehouse conjuring a Sunday-noontime-light-slanting-through-the-blinds vibe over a luscious 1970s jazz-soul groove. Then there’s “Between the Cheats,” from Winehouse’s aborted attempts at recording a third album with producer Salaam Remi in 2008. An old-fashioned 6/8 R&B ballad, it perfectly distills Winehouse’s marriage of classic soul style and goth-barfly smuttiness.
Sadder still, what’s not here. Winehouse was a talent in formation. Her debut album, the jazzy retro-soul Frank (2003), was promising but flawed: her appealing mix of London homegirl brassiness and classic-pop chops was undermined by her overly mannered singing and an unsure songwriting touch. On Back to Black (2006), she turned from sass to melodrama – with help from producer Mark Ronson and a pile of old Shangri-Las 45s – and recorded wrenchingly beautiful (and funny, and potty-mouthed) songs about love and addiction. But she was still finding her feet as a singer and a songwriter when she died. On Lioness, there are charming reminders of what was: the stirringly stately “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” cover, an alternate version of “Tears Dry.” But it’s hard not to believe that Winehouse died with her best work in front of her. We’ll never hear those records, and the silence is deafening.
Listen To “Between The Cheats”: