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. It seems like the project was driven by the commercial interests of the record industry, but what ultimately comes through is the admiration for her art that collaborators like Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson feel.
The album opens with an early song from the pre-Frank period, a cover of Ruby & the Romantics’ 1963 hit “Our Day Will Come.” While Winehouse was still in a more jazz-influenced style at the time, the song is a clear indicator of her debt to doo wop and ’60s girl groups. It’s a great start to the album and also seems like a sly nod to the “Lioness” of the title. (Like Ruby, Amy was a woman usually fronting an all-male band.) There’s an obvious poignancy to the song’s title (“Our Day Will Come”), and while the lyrics are typical of ’60s love songs, certain lines ring out: “Our dreams have magic/Because we’ll always stay/In love this way.”
The second track, “Between The Cheats,” is a new song recorded in 2008 that probably would have found its way (either in this incarnation or another) onto Winehouse’s third album, had she lived. It continues the strong start of “Our Day Will Come,” another overt nod to the tight ’60s pop arrangements of the girl groups that Winehouse loved. Her vocal is cheeky, sassy, smoky, and sexy in a way that only she could truly pull off among today’s female pop singers (though others are clearly following in her wake, with some success).
Winehouse’s collaboration with Ronson and Brooklyn’s Dap-Kings are Lioness‘ high-water marks. Though Ronson initially refused to work on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” he relented because he felt it was one of Winehouse’s greatest vocal takes ever (which is saying something). It doesn’t hurt that Winehouse has an immaculate Goffin/King composition to crawl up inside and make her own. Ronson’s initial reticence was also partly due to the fact that the song, which was a hit for The Shirelles in 1961, seemed to have so much baggage (it’s been covered by everyone from Dusty Springfield to Lykke Li). Ronson took the vocal out of the completely-forgettable arrangement of the song as used on the Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason soundtrack. What he constructs around it with the Dap-Kings and string arranger Chris Elliot — lush backing vocals and dynamic interplay between ascending strings, staccato horn stabs and rat-ta-tat drums — captures a mood The Shirelles could only have dreamed of.
Lioness‘ “Valerie” is an alternate take, different from the version included on the deluxe box edition of Back To Black. It’s the second Ronson production here and another great lyric for Winehouse to work with, this time from the ’00s British indie rock group the Zutons. This version, recorded prior to the previously released version (but on the same day), has a tighter soul groove. The deluxe set “Valerie” is a little looser and grittier and also has prominent strings. Both versions are pretty lights-out, though, so it’s hard to pick a favorite. Both have an in-the-moment crispness. These versions of “Valerie” document the first and only time Winehouse ever recorded live in the studio with the Dap-Kings.
I’m not sure what to make of the Nas collaboration, “Like Smoke.” The song had been kicking around during the Back To Black sessions but the basic tracks for this version were recorded in 2008, while Nas’ verses were added after Winehouse’s death. Winehouse was a massive Nas fan — using one of his beats for “In My Bed” and writing about him in “Me and Mr. Jones” — and the two artists even share a birthday. While “Like Smoke” seems anatomically correct, we’ll just have to wonder what else could have happened if the artists had gotten together in life — maybe something greater than just dropping some Nas raps in a Winehouse soul tune.
Lioness often shows the early jazz side of Winehouse, and it’s unclear how much of the jazz influence would have reemerged for a proper third album, coming off the heels of the vintage soul-dominated approach of Back To Black. There is an early demo of “Wake Up Alone,” recorded with co-writer/producer Paul O’Duffy, before Ronson got his hands on it and Dap-King-ized it for Back To Black. “Girl From Ipanema” is nice to hear, but a little out of place with the more unique cuts. Another older tune, “Halftime,” gets re-worked by Remi and The Roots’ ?uestlove for a liquid-smooth soul-jazz arrangement. The previously-released duet with Tony Bennett, “Body And Soul,” puts Winehouse in such a close, uncanny juxtaposition with Lady Day that it’s almost uncomfortable. A stirring reincarnation.
While Lioness may not be the perfect Amy Winehouse album, it’s all we have, which seems to be enough.