Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Ladies of the Night

He loves it when you call him Big Poppa

Amy Winehouse - "He Can Only Hold Her" (mp3)
(Purchase here)

Rachel Sweet - "B.A.B.Y."
(Purchase here)

The Crystals - "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)"
(Purchase here)

The Shangri-Las - "I Can Never Go Home Anymore"
(Purchase here)

I concede: if I posted with a bit more frequency these last couple months, I wouldn't have these long posts with several ideas that could be broken into three or four smaller posts. But, once again, I've had to divide my attention. Hate me now.

I'm going to see Amy Winehouse tonight. Miss T has made such a big deal of it that I almost feel self-conscious for going, as if the blahgerati hype didn't already nauseate me. That said, listening to her second album Back to Black, which was released in the States today, I've been thinking about blue-eyed (i.e., "white") soul, girl groups, the Lolita phenomenon, and Women's History Month. Don't worry, I'll take 'em one step at a time:

Amy: Both the old guard and the kids are lathering themselves for the second coming of Macy Milky Gray. But the hype is yesterday's news. And unfair to Winehouse, who has an abundance of musical gifts (like the afore-linked ladies) that deserve consideration beyond marketing's myopic race politics. Sure, Winehouse has the same gift/curse as the afore-linked ladies by being exceptionally talented, but unpolished; this weakness made her jazz-inflected debut Frank unravel at points. However, this time around the songs are simpler. Deliberately hearkening '60s/'70s rock'n soul, she places less melismatic stress on her voice and sounds more at ease.

Topically, the songs are still those of a 20-something's: overly dense and obsessively self-conscious. In this sense, the record remains true to its prime reference point: girl groups. Hardly a stretch of the imagination, when the lead singles interpolate "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and blare thick horns over church bells. However, the songwriting and arrangement connection is surface-level in comparison to the juvenile hell Winehouse trods. Singing of bad boys in "rolled up sleeves and skull t-shirts," her drama is hardly on the level of Mary J's. But her recent discovery of the evil-that-Greek-do makes "You Know I'm No Good" perfect wah-wah NYU/East Village pseudo-boho girl goo -- please think twice about that next tat, child!

However, the throwback angle is not entirely true as Winehouse's persona is thoroughly modern and more maxi than mini. "Rehab" defies with a swagger Jagger ain't felt since falling into the arms of Ziggy and Pop. "Nothing you can teach / that I can't learn from Mr. Hathaway"? Hot damn! She even comes close to being the "m" word on "He Can Only Hold Her" (I'll cover the John Legend/Jimi/"She's a Fox Now" angle another time), which is like a grown version of "Don't Take It Personal." So, defiant attitude and guarded intimacy: hardly the qualities we think of when listening to the Ronettes, Shangri-Las, et. al.

A better example of a strut down nostalgia street is Rachel Sweet's debut Fool Around, which has been reissued by the reactivated Stiff Records. Then 16-years old and packing a Ronettes-ish voice, Sweet shouted and cooed her way through a bizarrely eclectic record of proto-new wave and country-inflected ballads. The Hayes/Porter classic "B-A-B-Y" is one of the record's more accessible moments, but a good example of Sweet's adolescent sexuality being placed on a pedestal, all in the name of a girlie throwback. And what better way to get folks to buy a record of some random shit that to take the girl outta Akron and plant her in the familiar embrace of Stax. I cracked on man-boy the other day, but it ain't no joke that man-girl love has been in full effect since the drop.

Which makes me think something has been lost in generational translation. Not all the girl groups/performers of the '50s were singing Donna Reeds. The Crystals delivered the ultimate smackdown with "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)," one of the most hardbody songs of the '60s (and it dropped before your favorite Fortune 500 teenager grew his hair long or burned bra) (and it was co-written by Carol "I Feel the Earth Move" King," no less). Written in response to the abuse of singer Little Eva at the hands of her boyfriend, King and co-writer Gerry Goffin document the Stockholm Syndrome-reminiscent condition of normalized abuse. Thug love, if I've ever heard of it. And this version uses bells and violins. Even 2Pac couldn't get with that.

Then again, there are also girl groups that fit the bill to a tee. The Shangri-Las' "I Can Never Go Home Anymore" may not be as well recognized as their hit "Leader of the Pack," but the song's use of spoken monologues on teen Serkian dray-ma is so sudsy, I'd have to call it, "Rad." By the way, Mary Weiss, surviving member and former lead singer of the Shangri-Las, also returned back in black, hopped up on throwback rock'n soul and L-U-V. Her record follows the Ronnie Spector outing from a while back, sans her prior kitsch appeal.

Moral of the Story: Dudes are always fascinated with girls and trying to tell them what to do. Will Winehouse live up to her tuffness and stick it to the men? We'll see tonight.

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Blogger ally. said...

oooh we like your stuff sweetie.
all those groups make the sad sorry likes of radiohead sound positively cheery...if you want some teenage angst it's gonna come from a girl with a beehive (or mary weiss).

i'm just about to start a new feature - torment tuesday - full of these beauties.

your valentines selection was equally fabulous.

9:02 AM  

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