Any singer can opt out of rehab (just ask Britney Spears), but it takes an especially gargantuan pair of what Stephen Colbert has indelibly (and indelicately) dubbed "lady balls" to transform a stubborn refusal to seek help into a hit song. British pop chanteuse Amy Winehouse accordingly exudes astonishing levels of chutzpah on Back To Black, her much-buzzed-about new disc. Naming her first two songs/singles "Rehab" (as in, they tried to make her go but she said "no, no, no") and "You Know I'm No Good" is only the beginning. Winehouse has perfected her bad-girl shtick on albums and in her frequent misadventures in the British tabloid press, but there's surprising substance behind all the sneering style.
Back To Black has a hook as simple as it is irresistible. Winehouse's boozy, brawling, self-destructive 'tude is hip-hop and contemporary, but her unashamedly retro sound hearkens giddily back to Motown and girl groups of the '50s and '60s. There's something beguilingly perverse about the incongruity between Winehouse's trifling lyrical concerns and Back To Black's wall-of-sound richness. Winehouse might sing about sketchy acquaintances smoking too much of her weed, or a beau who made her miss a Slick Rick concert, but the songcraft is as lush as anything Phil Spector has cooked up.
Back To Black's tight 11 tracks were produced entirely by Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, two dependable hip-hop heads with impeccable pop instincts, and "You Know I'm No Good" originally hit the States as a Ronson-produced Ghostface track from More Fish, with Winehouse on the chorus. It takes one hell of a strong personality to take a track back from Ghostface, but Winehouse does it on the Ghostface-free version of "No Good" included here. Winehouse has the kind of smartass attitude and free-floating irreverence that'll take her far in the fickle, ephemeral world of British pop stardom. Thankfully, she has the kind of talent that'll take her even farther.