The posthumous record release is a notorious money grab. From Tupac to Michael Jackson to Dean Martin, death is rarely an obstacle when it comes to labels making fat cash off deceased stars. Unreleased tracks, demos, repackaged hits, doesn't matter. Sometimes you find revelations; more often you find filler. Fifty years from now, "new" stuff from Jimi Hendrix will still be available for fans.
British neo-soul singer Amy Winehouse's short, tragic career was so often a tabloid-rich mess that any posthumous output comes with the extra-ripe stench of disaster. Could there really be anything worthwhile out there? But as it turns out, Lioness: Hidden Treasures is an absolute joy, a stylized, inventive reminder of the talent the 27-year-old denied us when she drank herself to death on July 23, 2011.
Made up of unreleased tracks and demos — plus a duet of Body and Soul with Tony Bennett, two phrase-smart swingers having a flirty ball — Lioness is the sound of Winehouse scat-singing and taking bold chances with her coolly pained, Billie Holiday-esque phrasing. This is stuff that didn't make her albums, 2003's Frank and 2006's Grammy-winning Back to Black, primarily because she wasn't singing to make radio hits; she was singing for herself. So what we have here is Winehouse as a pure jazz belter. There are no lazy "remixes" of Rehab. It's all pretty fresh.
Producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, her two favorite soundmen, paired up on the project, often matching her vocals with new music. But with a few exceptions — rapper and friend Nas throws a cool rhyme into Like Smoke — they stay as old-school as Winehouse's beehive hairdo. Remi gives a dynamite cover of The Girl From Ipanema a rickety back beat, but the lush orchestration and Winehouse's deliciously nonsensical riffing drive this bossa-nova blast, her phrasing up there with the greats. Ronson guides Winehouse's devastating take on the Shirelles' Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, the titular question certainly bringing heartbreak.
The singer penned a couple of the tracks herself, including the languid Half Time, a slow-burn Sunday groove as good as anything she's done. She weighs the value of a bad man versus sweet music and reasons: "The music is a gift / And it's stronger than all else." It's not often you hear her in such a positive mood. I guess we should be thankful that the otherwise tortured Amy Winehouse, at least for a little while, believed music could cure all.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter (@seandalypoplife).