More than words or even photographs, it’s the recorded voice of a deceased that lingers on most palpably. Every time I listen to Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged, the fact that Kurt Cobain has been dead for 17 years — or even just dead — seems laughable. As I listen to Lioness: Hidden Treasures, with that punchy voice gushing out of the speakers, the same feeling of no-holds-barred disbelief comes over me almost six months since Amy Winehouse has been dead.
Put together by her producers Mark Ronson and SaLaAM ReMi, this is a collection of demos and unreleased tracks from the Winehouse magic house. As the very first song, ‘Our day will come’ testifies, this is not a hastily cut ‘homage’ album. From the first notes, Winehouse adds the phat to the reggae-fied fire of the 1963 doo-wop hit by Ruby and the Romantics and makes it her very own. As she sings, “Our day will come/ if we just wait a while/ no tears for us/ think love and wear a smile”, a tangible mixture of three parts happiness and one part sadness with a twist of lime can be tasted.
‘Between the cheats’ is an ironic track where Winehouse snaps out a tale of difficult love. We not only hear her intoxicated by strong, full-blooded emotions but we also sense their fragility as she sings, “My husband is the finest handsome hustler/ and he still makes this housewife blush/ so I go with him, my hand flicks/ I’m sitting on the royal flush.” This is the sound of the many paradoxes of love and loving.
For those familiar with ‘Tears dry on their own’, the Mowtown-drenched track on Winehouse’s classic second album Back to Black, here we get the original version, sung as a ballad. ‘Will you still love me tomorrow’ is a beautiful melody recorded in 2011 that was going to be in Winehouse’s third album. The voice, punctuated by drum raps and thin guitar, is ethereal. It just goes to show that Winehouse left the building when she was on top of her game. She teams up in ‘Like smoke’ with rapper Nas. Call me a Talib, but when Nas enters the second and fourth verses with his diddly raps, it’s an intrusion.
We enter a groovy zone in ‘Valerie’, a song that Winehouse had sung in Mark Ronson’s solo album Version where it had a distinctive George Michael ‘You gotta have, faith/ faith/ faith’-style bump’n’bop. In this ‘’68 version’, she shimmies it up with the horns, turning it into a song that Van Morrison could well be proud of singing.
But a gleam of genius is unleashed in the cover of the 60s Brazilian bossa-nova classic (made famous by the likes of artists like sax jazzman Stan Getz) ‘The girl from Ipanema’. This was the first song that that the 18-year-old Amy sang when she first went to Miami to work with producer SaLaAM ReMi. Winehouse’s cover slips and sways and is infused with a spirit that knows that innocence is valued only by the experienced. Hear her scat away here and you’ll realise how tremendously good this lady was as a jazz singer.
‘Half time’ continues through this jazzy landscape. We enter the zone of of soft more-rhythm-than-blues in the stripped down version of ‘Wake up alone’, that sheer soul storm of a track from Back to Black. You hear the song unpeeled. Soft soul-stirrings mix with pack-a-punch lyrics (“I can’t wait to get away from you/ unsurprisingly you hate me too/ we only communicate when we need a fight/ but we are best friends, right?”) in ‘Best friends, right?’
A gem is embedded near the end of this fab album in the form of the 30s jazz standard, ‘Body and soul’ that Winehouse sings with Tony Bennett. Even without the knowledge that this is Winehouse’s final recording, the song is haunting as she traipses down a staircase of notes and pauses. Lionness ends with the stunning beauty of the cover of 60s soul singer-songwriter Donny Hathaway’s ‘A song for you’.
Once again, this is not a ‘homage’ album. It is an album in which we hear the voice and soul of one of the finest singers of our time at her peak.