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If you were wondering what Kate Bush looks like these days…

… Then look no further.

Kate Bush is back this spring with Director’s Cut, an unusual package that brings together new versions of songs that appeared on her albums The Sensual World (1989) and The Red Shoes (1993), keeping the “best” elements of the existing tracks while re-imagining others. So far, so mysterious – that is until Amazon jumped the gun a little and posted a 30-second preview clip of the new “Deeper Understanding,” originally from The Sensual World. What emerged was a sultry-sounding new vocal from Bush singing the “I press execute” line followed by a jarring and, frankly, terrifying computerised voice in place of the original angelic chorus of Bush and the Trio Bulgarka. It is a mark of her artistic fearlessness that a 30-second clip of a six-and-a-half minute song (around two minutes’ extension from 1989’s original) can provoke the mostly negative reactions it has among Bush fans so far, but really it makes sense for a song about computers to have a digitised voice in there somewhere. It remains to be seen (or rather, heard) how the other six minutes follow.

It’s an odd project, definitely, but both of these records that Bush is revisiting came at difficult points in her life. With The Sensual World, Bush was struggling with studio fatigue, having rarely been out of the confinement of the recording atmosphere for the best part of a decade, and had the problem of following two landmark artistic triumphs in The Dreaming (1982) and, commercially as well, Hounds of Love (1985). Then, The Red Shoes was beset by personal issues as Bush split from her long-time partner Del Palmer and suffered through the death of her mother Hannah, contributing to one of her less focused records. Still, she has expressed the opinion that these records contain some of her best work – so it makes sense for her now, with the benefit of two decades’ hindsight, to return to tinker with them with a fresh new approach. Whether Bush stretches even further back and undertakes a similar project with her other records remains to be seen, but the very arrival of any new Bush release is cause for celebration, giving her propensity for large gaps between records.

And for those who are disappointed at the lack of new new material, the official word is that Bush is working on brand new material. It’s on its way, people! In the meantime, let’s look forward to this fascinating new project, due for release in mid-May.

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Filed under: Culture, Music, News, Pop, , ,

PJ Harvey on The Culture Show 2011

PJ Harvey’s appearance on BBC2’s The Culture Show, on February 10, 2011

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The wonders of Twin Peaks

I had never seen “Twin Peaks” until two weeks ago, compelled to purchase the Definitive Gold Box Edition set solely on the strength of customer reviews and the knowledge of its cultural significance. I knew nothing about the plot, beyond the fact that it opens with the murder of a teenage girl and stars Kyle MacLachlan, and had no real idea what to expect (although I am a big fan of David Lynch’s films Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (2001). I was not disappointed. “Twin Peaks” is incredibly addictive; it’s as quirky and mind-bending as some of Lynch’s best film work, but there’s a core of relatable human truth, and it effortlessly fuses the high art and cinematography of film with the fast pace of television.

While the quest to solve the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is the driving force of the series, there are numerous subplots as well, and such is the wonderful amalgam of thriller, mystery, and soap opera parody that one begins to suspect almost everyone, and wonder how the subplots relate to the bigger storyline. Many ultimately don’t particularly have much to do with the Palmer storyline, but the guessing game is half of the fun. There are far too many memorable scenes and episodes to mention, but the first half of the series (that is, all eight episodes of the first season and the first half of season two) set a high benchmark for television. The episodes are beautiful, funny, scary, and bizarre all at once, and it’s an intoxicating mix. There’s just the right amount of tension, drama, and light relief, and it’s the feel of the show that leaves the lasting impression – the dominant red and wood colouring, the settings (the diner, the log-cabin feel of the Great Northern Hotel, the mill), and of course Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting music that weaves in and out. Each character is developed beautifully, and even the supposedly more minor players have pleasing depth.

Bowing to pressure from the ABC network, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost reveal the identity of the killer midway through season two and afterwards there is a palpable change of feel; it is as if the air is being let out of a tyre. The remaining episodes are of high quality, and more often than not continue to retain the distinctive “Twin Peaks” feel, but some of the stories – James’ flirtation with a mysterious woman when he leaves Twin Peaks, for one – are closer to real soap opera than the sophisticated soap parody of the first half of the series. It’s to the writers’ credit that the characters were developed enough for them to warrant continued viewing, and certain characters – especially Piper Laurie as Catherine Martell – really shine. The unique “Twin Peaks” of the first season returns in the last few episodes, with the episodes feeling tighter, more creative, and intense. The finale is as bizarre and beautiful as one would hope; it leaves a few threads hanging but makes a suitable finish at the same time.

This box set is wonderfully produced – each episode looks fresh and high quality, and the quality of the remastering is especially evident when you watch the non-remastered Log Lady intros before each episode. (There is a curious scene in one late season two episode however, with Audrey Horne and Windom Earle in the library, which appears not to be remastered and stands out.) The extras are often excellent – an almost two-hour ‘Making Of’ documentary series divided into the making of the pilot, the first season, the second season, and the music, and featuring insightful interview snippets with cast and crew. There’s also a fun bar-set interview with Lynch, MacLachlan, Madchen Amick (Shelly), and crew member John Wentworth, a 20-minute documentary about the “Twin Peaks” fan festival, MacLachlan’s monologue and sketch from a 1990 episode of “Saturday Night Live,” extensive photo galleries (including images of all 76 “Twin Peaks” trading cards!), a collection of promo trailers (and an advert for a “Twin Peaks” t-shirt), and a collection of little audio features where Lucy and Andy among others deliver news from the series (totalling 22 minutes.) The extras all add to the magic of the box set.

I would heartily recommend “Twin Peaks” to anyone who is interested in original, creative television. It’s quirky and offbeat in the most imaginative, beautiful way possible, but also possesses familiar, identifiable human values that are so essential in a recurring television show. It’s incredibly well-drawn and well-realised, and even the second half of season two, which appears to have lost much of the tension and intensity of the first season, is pretty sophisticated and enjoyable. I came into “Twin Peaks” effectively ‘blind,’ took a risk on a quite-expensive-looking box set for a show I had never seen and knew very little about, and it’s a decision I do not regret. Usually once I have watched a TV show I have enjoyed, I will put it aside and resolve to watch it again in a few months, maybe a year. With “Twin Peaks,” I already want to go back to the beginning and watch again, such is its unique, seductive, addictive allure. Twenty years on from its original run, “Twin Peaks” remains a high watermark in television.

Filed under: Art, Culture, Film, Mystery, , , , ,

Poem of the Day: Ted Hughes – “Pike”

Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.

Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.

In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads-
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds

The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date:
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.

Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: red fry to them-
Suddenly there were two. Finally one

With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb-

One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks-
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.

A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them-

Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast

But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,

Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly toward me, watching.

Filed under: Books, Culture, Poetry, ,

Billie Holiday – Lady Sings the Blues (1956)

Published in 1956 and ghost-written by William Dufty, Billie Holiday’s autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues” was later made into an Oscar-nominated film and has perpetuated some of the myths surrounding Holiday’s eventful life. But while Dufty may be ghost-writer, make no mistake that this is Billie in her own words. The streetwise phrases, the patois, the slang, it’s all there. What emerges is a distinctive narrative voice. It is perhaps a cliche to say it reads like a diary, but more than any other autobiography I have read there’s a real closeness, intimacy, and a complete lack of holding back.

So what, if these are Holiday’s words, was Dufty’s role? A writer and editor at the New York Post, Dufty was married to Billie’s friend Maely and the book was written from conversations with the singer at the Duftys’ New York apartment (as well as from previous interviews.) But it’s so clearly Billie that you almost forget Dufty’s involvement beyond editing and fashioning it into a presentable, readable state (but Dufty does deserve major credit for bringing the book to life.)

Billie comes across as tough and streetwise but with a heart of gold. There may be factual inaccuracies along the way (her mother and father are not believed to have married, and were a little older than the book states) but the voice is so vivid and absorbing. “Lady Sings the Blues” takes us from the poverty of her Baltimore childhood through her spell in a Catholic reformatory institution after she was molested as a child to the bright lights but harsh realities of Harlem, where Billie found herself in jail for prostitution and then became a surprise star on the Harlem club scene.

We learn all about the advent of her singing career, tempered by episodes of horrifying racism, ill-fated relationships, and heroin addiction that, after her one-year jail term in 1947-48, cost her lucrative spots in New York night clubs. In between there are numerous delightful episodes with a surprise cast of characters including Clark Gable, Sarah Vaughan, and Lana Turner, and asides about her views on drug addiction and the healthcare system of America compared to Europe. The chapter about her European tour in 1954 is one of the book’s most heart-warming and heart-breaking at once; here is a woman filled with joy and excitement about going to Europe and finding herself genuinely surprised and delighted by the positive reception she gets, the warm-hearted fans, the knowledgeable critics, and the newspapers that do not skew her words.

It’s a book I couldn’t put down. Vivid and full of life to the last, it seems to echo Billie’s policy of dusting herself off and carrying on. There’s no preaching or self-pitying, and while the story is often unbearably tragic, Billie herself never comes across as a tragic figure. She’s tough, she’s smart, she’s funny, but she’s never tragic or miserable. In the end, it’s a pretty inspirational story. The fact that she died only three years after its publication adds an extra poignant note to proceedings. It’s difficult to get cold hard facts about a life as tangled and shrouded in mystery and myth as Billie Holiday’s, but “Lady Sings the Blues” is a wonderful companion to her music and, with an enlightening introduction and short essay on the picks of her discography by critic David Ritz, this 50th anniversary edition is the way to go.

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Song of the Day – PJ Harvey: “The Last Living Rose”

Premiere of the short film for “The Last Living Rose,” from PJ Harvey’s forthcoming new album Let England Shake.

It’s marvellous.

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Laura Nyro’s “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat” at 40

November 25, 2010 – the 40th anniversary of the release of Laura Nyro’s fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Recorded in New York City in the spring of 1970, the album was released that November and soon rose to #51 on the American Billboard album chart. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a holiday-themed record; it’s not, and her label bosses did try to explain that including “Christmas” in the title would be misleading, but Nyro, who had bowed to the wishes of her “superiors” during her early recording sessions in 1966, was not going to let the same thing happen and remained resolute.

 

 

Nyro completed her “holy trinity” of albums with the release of Christmas and the Beads of Sweat; it seemed to complete an artistic arc that she had begun with 1968’s cosmopolitan Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and continued on 1969’s dramatic, noir New York Tendaberry; indeed, it was Nyro’s last album of new material for more than five years.

Somewhat strangely, Christmas ranks as the most neglected album of Nyro’s early career – more so, even, than 1971’s Gonna Take a Miracle, the acclaimed collection of soul and R&B covers recorded in Philadelphia with Gamble and Huff on production duties and vocal trio Labelle on harmonies. It is also seen by some as the weak link of the trilogy of deeply intense, original works Nyro fashioned at the peak of her creativity in her early twenties. In reality, there is no such ‘weak link’ – Christmas and the Beads of Sweat is home to several extraordinary Nyro originals. But, granted, it may not possess quite the breathtaking originality of Eli or Tendaberry.

The reason for this is perhaps because it does not really bring many new elements to the table – by now, Nyro’s trademarks, such as her tempo and rhythmic changes, her distinctive piano lines, her multi-octave vocal swoops, had become familiar. That doesn’t mean they somehow worsened or became tiresome, but there is not the monumental leap between predecessor New York Tendaberry and Christmas that there was between 1967 debut More Than A New Discovery and Eli, and then between Eli and Tendaberry.

Instead, Christmas can perhaps be described as an amalgam of Eli and Tendaberry in that it is divided between joyous, uplifting soulful pop songs and more expansive, experimental, piano-driven epics. Christmas has its own distinctive flavour in that it is more exotic and Oriental-sounding than its predecessors; there are subtle Latin inflections in the rhythms and arrangement of “Blackpatch,” and of course the Oriental arrangement and melodic structure of “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp” and aquatic harp lines in “Map to the Treasure.” This softer and more exotic sound would resurface on 1976’s Smile; if there is a new element added to Nyro’s sound on this album, then this is it – an Oriental bent, a gospel mellowness. It’s a subtle addition but definitely gives the record its own distinct sound.

The original album was split with two bands playing on the different sides. This was not pre-arranged but, as producers Felix Cavaliere and Arif Mardin explained, just happened that way. The first side features the accompaniment of the Swampers band from Muscle Shoals, lending the songs an easygoing feel, while the second side features an array of musicians including Duane Allman on electric guitar on “Beads of Sweat” and Alice Coltrane on harp. As a result, the album as a whole is perhaps not as unified as Eli or Tendaberry, and maybe suffers for that reason, but the individual songs are first-rate. (And the semi-conceptual ‘four seasons’ arc to Side B is a four-song wonder.)

“Brown Earth” is a gloriously uplifting gospel-soul number that doesn’t really sound like any other Laura Nyro original; it rises from almost whispered verses to a rousing hook of “white dove’s gonna come today / oh what a morning / it feels so good / oh what a morning / of brotherhood,” with a multi-tracked choir of soulful, impassioned Nyros singing on the “white dove” and “oh what a morning” lines. If anything, the gospel soul sound is almost a precursor to her next project, the covers album Gonna Take a Miracle. In any case, it’s a glorious, effective opener, with beautifully conventional yet effective piano lines.

The following “When I Was A Freeport and You Were the Main Drag” is more upbeat and features the return of Nyro’s familiar syncopated piano lines; it also displays her oft-missed sense of humour. An album like New York Tendaberry was more intent on dramatics and theatrics than humour, so “Freeport” is a welcome change of tone for Nyro; it’s also a bolder, sassier, feistier Nyro on this song than the “delicate romantic” some seem to perceive her to be. The song is incredibly melodic and, in its effervescent abandon, catchy as hell and among her best in this up-tempo, jaunty category, featuring such jewel lines as “I got a lot of patience baby / that’s a lot of patience to lose.”

The laidback, easygoing feel continues into the Latin-accented “Blackpatch,” a joyous mid-tempo snapshot of a day in the life of a city woman, maybe Nyro herself. Only Nyro could make such everyday events as sending out party invitations and hanging out the washing sound beautiful and energised, but she ends the song with a knowing lyric, “womanchild on a sidestreet / flashing in blackpatch / lipstick on her reefer / waiting for a match.” Nyro’s poetry is incredibly evocative and unique, but the words fit remarkably into ultra-catchy pop melodies, which is one of her finest skills. “Blackpatch” boasts one of the most effortless and sophisticated pop-soul melodies on the album, and its arrangement, incorporating horns and congas, is tasteful and imaginative.

The tone of the album changes drastically on the six-minute piano epic “Been on a Train,” Nyro’s second “train” song about hard drugs, following from “Poverty Train,” which she debuted at June 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival. “Been on a Train” is looser than its predecessor, moodier and more intense. Nyro’s detached vocal delivery on the verses is chilling, while her piano lines are much simpler than normal, putting the spotlight onto her lyrics. The song unexpectedly but dramatically changes gears when Nyro’s voice rises to a gospel soar – “you got more tracks on you baby, than the tracks of this train” – before she screams out, “No! No! Damn you mister!” in her inimitable theatrical New York Tendaberry style, before leaping into a feverish tempo change, only to settle back into the moodiness of the verses again. Its placement amid the uplifting, soulful pop songs of side one is all the more effective and for that reason, “Been on a Train” is a standout. But as a song in its own right, it remains peerlessly effective (and four decades on, harrowing and hard-hitting) as a portrait of a heroin addict, possibly influenced by the death of Nyro’s cousin from a heroin overdose in October 1969.

The mood switches back from the darkness and despair of “Been on a Train” to a sense of easygoing, romantic uplift for “Up on the Roof” by Gerry Goffin and Carole King – at that time, the very first cover version Nyro had recorded. It fits right into the mood, though, and it’s not a stretch to think of it as a Nyro original. More conventional, perhaps, but melodically it has something in common with Nyro originals. It’s a great performance with a beautiful arrangement, and was selected as the album’s single in the autumn of 1970. Ironically, this cover version became Nyro’s biggest hit in her own right, Nyro being famed as a successful songwriter for other artists.

Side two is more expansive and exotic. It begins with the superb “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp,” one of Nyro’s finest songs. It is musically sophisticated, with a beautiful Oriental-inspired arrangement and one of Nyro’s most haunting and evocative piano melodies. Her vocal performance is also top-notch, as are the poetic lyrics, which detail a “sleepy woman by the window / dreaming in the morning air / of the man who takes her sweetness / by a Chinese lamp upstairs.” It’s gorgeous, romantic, and sensual, and an album highlight. It then segues into an eight-minute epic, “Map to the Treasure,” which opens with Alice Coltrane’s watery, exotic harp, which resurfaces at some points throughout the song. “Map to the Treasure” is a mood piece, really, with wispy verses that give way to an extended and memorable piano solo that gradually increases in speed and intensity, before Nyro comes back with the vocal hook, “in the treasure of love,” only to fade away again. It is sensual, as with “Chinese Lamp,” but sexual too (“for you I bear down / soft and burning”), and the music mirrors the excitement of sex.

“Beads of Sweat” is next; it starts in much the same way as “Map to the Treasure,” with a cooing Nyro intoning over a barely-there piano, “cold jade wind…” but then surges into the most driving, hard-rocking song Nyro ever recorded. Its closest relative is “Eli’s Comin’,” which shares much of the same lyrical conceit and same musical urgency, but “Beads of Sweat,” featuring Duane Allman on guitar, is probably harder-rocking and just as intense. It’s an unexpected change of pace for Nyro but is another strong composition with several hooks. It has a kind of gospel fervour that marks it out as one of Nyro’s most inspired and original efforts.

The album closes with another epic, the seven-minute “Christmas In My Soul,” a poem Nyro set to music. It is unfortunate that Nyro ended the album on a disappointingly earnest note; it is the first real place where Nyro explores political matters – she sings of “the sins of politics, the politics of sin” – and her specific detailing of the Chicago Seven and “Black Panther brothers” dates the song and forces it into a corner, so to speak. It has little in common with the evocative, imaginative, successful poetic lyrics Nyro was writing in other songs at the time. Musically, too, it is rather overbearing, with some misplaced bells and military drums overstating the point. The melody is not one of Nyro’s most illuminating, and her vocal is pitched firmly in the upper register throughout, which makes the song a little hard work. It retains a sense of drama and ambition that is pleasing to see, but other songs on the album are also dramatic and ambitious – “Been on a Train” and “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp”/”Map to the Treasure,” for instance – but are also wholly successful. “Christmas In My Soul” is a suitably epic end to the album, but it’s actually one of the weaker and less successful songs here.

Laura Nyro probably did not intend to “retire” from the music business after this album. In concerts in 1970-72, she was performing some new songs that had not yet been recorded – “I Am the Blues,” “American Dove,” “Children of the Junks,” “Mother Earth” – that suggest she was still thinking of making a record of new songs. Instead, she did a record of oldies in 1971 before marrying and leaving the spotlight for four years. But in truth, the extraordinary twin peaks of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry represent a level of intense creativity that probably left Nyro understandably exhausted. At 22, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat is probably the sound of a woman relaxing just a little, cooling off after two or three years of intense, passionate music. That’s not to say that Christmas does not fit that category – you would be hard-pressed to find songs as intense or passionate as “Been on a Train,” “Map to the Treasure,” or “Beads of Sweat” – but there is a certain softening in the sound here that suggests Nyro’s artistry was subtly changing. Indeed, “Christmas In My Soul” looks outward for largely the first time, and when Nyro returned in 1976, she was writing more about political and social concerns as well as writing about her personal life. So, in a sense, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat represents a crucial turning point in Laura Nyro’s music – it closes the chapter on her first period of original songs (and what a purple patch it was), and at the same time hints at her artistic evolution to come. As an album in its own right, it deserves more praise as being one of Nyro’s finest and most enduring efforts and is a worthy final act of an extraordinary trilogy. And 40 years later, it still shines bright.

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PJ Harvey returns with “Let England Shake”

PJHarvey.net teased us with an “announcement coming November 23rd” announcement and today we learned that Feb.14, 2011 will see the release of Harvey’s eighth solo studio album Let England Shake.

It’s been a long time coming, written and demoed even before the release of 2009’s John Parish collaboration A Woman A Man Walked By, and recorded this spring in a Dorset church. Word is that it’s “dark” and “terrifying,” but Harvey has also made reference to its “energy” and “vitality” to the NME, describing it as “uplifting.” All words that we like in PJH land.

The two songs we’ve heard that presumably will be included – “Let England Shake” and “The Last Living Rose” – seemed to suggest a move away from the spectral piano ghost-balladry of 2007’s White Chalk but we can be sure that something somewhat fresh and new is coming, such is the Peej loath to repeat herself.

It will be interesting hearing more news trickle out over the next three months. Her last February-released album was 1995’s classic To Bring You My Love – an omen? We will see.

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Song of the Day: Judee Sill – “The Pearl”

This wonderful performance of “The Pearl,” from an early 1973 episode of The Old Grey Whistle Test, was recently rebroadcast as part of BBC4’s Singer/Songwriters season, and finds Judee Sill in spellbinding form. It’s gorgeous, sparse, and haunting. And look at her guitar playing!

Thanks to YouTube user wilfridthesiger for uploading it.

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Song of the Day: Amy Winehouse – “It’s My Party”

She’s performed live reasonably regularly, but documents from the studio are a rare occurrence for Amy Winehouse these days – and her cover of Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit “It’s My Party” marks the first new studio recording release from the singer since 2007, when she delivered some of the bonus tracks that made it onto the Back to Black reissue.

The original is a pleasant, quite pretty song in the early ’60s girl group pop style beloved of Winehouse, but in this version – for a new Quincy Jones tribute record – she bends and twists the phrasing almost beyond recognition, but to my ears it works quite wonderfully. It’s not a boring, phoned-in vocal; it’s ragged, yes, and rough, and imperfect, but its imperfections and jagged edges only enhance the personality and drama of Winehouse’s vocal.

The musical backing is a tasteful, warm, analog ’60s pastiche a la the Ronson/Remi-helmed Back to Black, which is now some four years old. It gives a tantalising insight into what Winehouse’s eagerly-awaited third LP might sound like, but even more tantalising is hearing what her voice sounds like now, after the last four years of hard living.

Reports of this song have been bandied about since 2008, but it seems that work finally came to fruition in recording sessions this summer (2010), so it’s reasonable for us to believe that this is a newly-recorded vocal from the singer, which would put her at 26 this summer. It’s quite a shock to think this is the voice of a 26-year-old; the tone and power is akin to her soulful, forceful Back to Black voice, but in the vibrato it has taken on a much rougher-edged quality (listen to the way she sings the drawn-out “you” in “if it happened to you”) that has come with the years of crack and heroin abuse. Billie Holiday has long been a comparison point for Winehouse both in style and in private pursuits, and it’s not too much of a stretch to make that comparison here.

It’s feasible that Winehouse was, shall we say, under the influence during the recording sessions – there’s a frailty and fragility to this performance, with its liberal manipulation of timing and phrasing, but it shows that the voice is still there, the personality is still there, and the wonderful uniqueness is still there.

I look forward to that elusive third album greatly.

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