Album Review: Lioness: Hidden Treasures by Amy Winehouse
Fairly Good, Based on 16 Critics
Rolling Stone - 100 Based on rating 5/5
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.
It’s easy to forget that Amy Winehouse is no longer here. All one has to do is turn to her albums, or search YouTube for countless performances and undiscovered B-sides, to erase that July afternoon when news broke of her passing. Lioness: Hidden Treasures, a collection of previously unreleased recordings and alternate versions of some of Amy’s beloved hits, gives fans another chance to experience her trademark vocals and wonder what could have been.
The qualities of a vocal genius don't always become clear when she's singing classic material. Often as not, her abilities to both personalize and transcend a lifeless song with a stellar performance reveal the character behind the singer. Both Billie Holiday and Otis Redding excelled no matter what they were recording, whether it was a timeless standard or a studio throwaway.
”Like smoke, I stick around,” Winehouse purrs on Lioness: Hidden Treasures. It’s a strange thing to hear the late songstress promise: Sticking around was never really her thing. For her, anything not meant to last — the golden years of Motown, doomed romance — was always worth loving more fiercely. So it’s bittersweet that this not-totally-essential set of covers and rarities refuses to let her leave us for good.
Calling Lioness:Hidden Treasures Amy Winehouse's "third album" is a bit of a stretch. Had the singer lived, she most likely would have put out a more consistently brilliant album than Lioness. Both Frank and Back To Black present a cohesive whole, where Lioness is really just bits and bobs scraped together after Winehouse's death -- sometimes exhibiting genius, sometimes sounding like the outtakes that they are.
Lioness is not Amy Winehouse's long-lost gem or interrupted follow-up album, nor is it a revealing view of a tortured star in the fraught final stages of her life. Instead, in true record-industry fashion, Lioness is a collection of odds-and-sods cobbled together over the course of nine years of recordings to create something that kinda-sorta feels like an album. Executive produced by longtime partner Salaam Remi, who helmed her 2003 debut album, Frank, Lioness carries little of the subversive swagger or playful arrogance of the Mark Ronson-dominated Back to Black.
“And when my life is over, remember, remember, remember, remember,” Amy Winehouse improvised on her cover of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You”. Don’t worry, baby. Those of us who heard you live and listened to your records will never forget you. You had an amazingly soulful delivery and sang with astonishing passion.
Not so much a posthumous hack job as the kind of rarities comp of demos, covers and alternate takes an artist might release late in their career, Lioness stresses the late soul singer's talent for writing songs as timeless as many of the classics she reinterpreted. With an emphasis on covers, the overall mood is frustratingly lighter than Winehouse's two studio LPs. It's missing the pointed wit, energy and hard-fought candour that marked her best material, but her considerable vocal swagger is unmistakable.
In death, a singer's legacy can easily become the subject of a custody battle. With a talent as nuanced and contrary as Winehouse's, there are many readings of the singer ripe for perpetuation. Which Winehouse will win out? She was a jazz nut with a dirty laugh who loved great swaths of music, both strait-laced and streetwise. She stole gleefully from Ronnie Spector, idolised rapper Nas (aka Mr Jones) and – as the final track here, a cover of "A Song for You" attests – felt kinship with soul man Donny Hathaway, a paranoid schizophrenic who ended his life by jumping from a balcony.
It says something about the lowly reputation of the posthumous album that Amy Winehouse's Lioness: Hidden Treasures comes accompanied by an apologetic-sounding assurance. "This isn't a Tupac situation," offered one of its compilers, producer Salaam Remi, by which he presumably means this is the first and last time Winehouse's stash of unreleased material is going to be raided, in contrast to the mind-boggling 25 albums released in the 15 years since the rapper rattled his clack. On the evidence of Lioness: Hidden Treasures, it doesn't sound as if they've got much choice.
When Amy Winehouse died from complications of ingesting too much alcohol this past July, she unknowingly became part of a sad and mysterious club of troubled musicians. Like Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin before her, the retro songstress plagued by substance abuse problems passed on at the age of 27. Winehouse only released two albums during her lifetime, but still managed to become one of the most celebrated and criticized artists of the last decade.
Despite the best efforts of producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, Lioness: Hidden Treasures, the first posthumous Amy Winehouse release since the singer’s death earlier this year, too often sounds like a cobbled-together cash grab. Lacking the scope or vision of Frank and Back to Black, the compilation simply can’t replicate the creativity and inimitable point of view that made Winehouse such a compelling artist. In retrospect, that she was unable to overcome her struggles with addiction gives even greater weight to the self-loathing streak that runs through Back to Black, making that album a far more effective swan song for Winehouse than the odds-and-ends collection Lioness could ever hope to be.
In the weeks and months leading up to the tragically premature death of Amy Winehouse, speculation had begun to grow about a potential third album. It had been five years since the award-winning, multi-platinum Back To Black, and the public was hungry for more. Indeed, Winehouse herself had promised an interviewer in 2010 that the wait for a new record would be “six months at the most”, while goddaughter Dionne Bromfield even told entertainment website Digital Spy that she’d heard the album and that it was “very good”.
Lioness: Hidden Treasures is an appropriately muted set, with Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi producing an honourable and moving tribute to the Amy Winehouse. In it, Winehouse sings her words, and those of others, to convey her hopes and dreams for a happier future that would never arrive. Early recordings of an 18-year old star-in-the-making hold tragic poignance – Winehouse unwitting, the listener knowing better.
She didn’t leave much behind. That’s the inescapable fact of Amy Winehouse‘s posthumous collection, “Lioness: Hidden Treasures.” The album’s 12 songs are the leftovers from a singer and songwriter who was promising on her 2003 debut album, “Frank”; fully herself and even more promising on her 2006 album, “Back to Black”; and then a long, sad story until her death from alcohol poisoning this year. The transformation from the confident, sly, sweet-and-sour-voiced 18-year-old in 2002 to the scratchy, ravaged latter-day star is the album’s back story, even as the music stays chipper.
A dignified reminder of Winehouse’s talent – but what more could she have achieved? Lou Thomas 2011 Amy Winehouse performed, wrote and lived with a seductive and startling blend of confidence and vulnerability. Her early death may not have been a huge surprise to anyone who had an interest in her life, but it shocked her beloved Camden and far beyond because she was one of us. She may have had an exquisite voice redolent of broken hearts and lost weekends, but even when Amy was selling millions of records she could be found shooting pool and downing drinks in north London pubs.