Unknown Mortal Orchestra - “So Good At Being In Trouble”
A Blue Eyed Soul-informed take on R&B, scrubbed down and sanitized the way that only Blue Eyed (read: white) boys tend to do, for better or worse. I should probably be upset about the lack of actual “soul” here, but this trebly, skeletal take on R&B strikes a certain chord with my general feeling of teenage emptiness.
On an actual plus side, it’s all analog. In crafting this single, Unknown Mortal Orchestra ambitiously spurned the dreary synths of the time and constructed a legitimate R&B cut with refreshingly real and very welcome guitars, bass, and live drums. If you ask me, the UMO boys should ditch their psych rock crutch in the future and stick to this aesthetic for a while. It could be interesting.
Stream “So Good At Being In Trouble” above and pick up Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s new record II via Jagjaguwar.
Amy Winehouse - Back To Black (2006)
Like I’m sure countless others have done across the globe in light of her death today, I pulled out my copy of Amy Winehouse's multi-platinum selling album Back To Black earlier today and spun it for the first time in at least a year. I suppose that in a way, it’s kind of screwed up that it took Amy Winehouse’s death for me to give this album a fresh listen. Although I’d heard bits of the record everywhere from my parents’ friends houses (ironically, the 40-somethings I know seem to think that it works perfectly as a soundtrack to their suburban dinner parties) to the supermarket, my opinion of Back To Black and Amy Winehouse herself was still largely based on the impressions that I had listening to this album as a child back in 2006, when my father first became obsessed with it. Listening to it now as a more mature individual, appreciative of its cultural significance and aware of its context in the global pop lexicon of the past decade, I think that I understand it (and again, Winehouse herself) a lot more.
Hindsight is also particularly enlightening in the case of Back To Black. As the last official release before her death, and certainly the definitive example of her commercial and critical success, Back To Black will inextricably be tied to her death, not to mention the tumultuous series of events that invariably lead up to it, regardless of what the official cause of death ends up being. Sex, all those drugs, the countless parties, rejected “Rehab”, and yes, love — or whatever her highly publicized marital struggles amounted to — it’s all represented here, sitting squarely in the mix on top of those squawking vintage horns. That absolutely golden soul voice. It’s no wonder why it all sounded so genuine.
But authenticity would be nothing without good tunes to convey it. Most importantly, this record is really, really good. Tragically — although this tragedy is not quite as tragic as her death, but perhaps more surprising — I never appreciated the genius behind the album until today. I’m sure I’m reiterating some 5-Star Rolling Stone review or whatever from back when they first got to feast on this record five years ago, but now is probably as good a time as ever to do so. Certainly, Back To Black would be nothing without the Winehouse character, but it wouldn’t be half the record it ended up being had it not been for the contributions of producer Mark Ronson. Full-sounding and more than a little dirty, the post-modern production perfectly contrasts with the harshly modernistic tone of Winehouse’s lyrics.
Perhaps from another perspective, the production and the lyrics don’t contrast at all. Although the musical sounds and the lyrical references on this album seem to come from different eras, the sentiment that they both express is universal. For instance, the palpable punch of the piano chords that open album’s title track conveys the same unsubtle vulgarity as the song’s first line — “He left no time to regret / Kept his dick wet”. Elsewhere on Back To Black, musical inflections further corroborate lyrical themes. The “humph” of the bass saxophone on “You Know I’m No Good” is particularly notable, as it seems to support the song’s titular statement and the subsequent evidence for it the way a backup singer would never be able to.
Because of her death, Winehouse (and of course, this album) will be looked back on as a key figure in the 21st century pop scene, whether you like it or not. Although her contemporaries Adele and Duffy have been somewhat tight-lipped as to just how much credit they owe Winehouse for their respective successes, other megastars of pop have gone out on a limb in support of her. Most notable of all is Lady Gaga, who has pointedly praised Winehouse for proving that women with unconventional personas can make it big — and not just big, but really huge — in the pop landscape. If this is the legacy of the British soul revival singer, I have no qualms, but I think that’s only half the story.
While Winehouse herself was certainly a unique character in life, the unique nature of Back To Black is much more subtle. Like The White Stripes before her, Winehouse never intended to make a particularly nostalgic record in Back To Black, but invariably started a widespread “revival” movement solely on the sheer strength of the album. In a sense, she did not just prove that unconventional women could be successful in pop; she proved that something as played out and conventional-sounding as soul music could be as fresh and unique as it was in its heyday, as long as someone truly special is behind the mic. Love her or hate her, Amy Winehouse was that truly special someone. She will be missed, even if you don’t know it yet.