This past Tuesday, for the second time this year, the doctor of pill-popping schizo-diva Amy Winehouse ordered her to cancel an entire tour to get some sun and enjoy “complete rest.” On that same day, Winehouse’s debut album finally saw domestic release in the States, some four years after its initial U.K. release. Titled “Frank” as a tribute to Sinatra, the album found Prince singing Winehouse’s praises and inviting her to collaborate onstage; combine those two landmark artists’ aesthetics, substitute their respective vocal stylings with a sultry R&B croon and you begin to see the outlines of Winehouse’s sound.
While the 20-year-old Winehouse’s performance is not quite as refined as the one found on 2006’s highly acclaimed “Back to Black,” hers is one of the most expressive and authentic voices to be found in the modern pop landscape. The truth is, however, that this is as much her backing band’s album as it is Winehouse’s: the liner notes list contributions from more than a couple dozen highly accomplished musicians, most of which play on the majority of the tracks.
The characteristic horn riffs found on the noir, dreamy “In My Bed” are dutifully turned in by the veritable Dap Kings; Wu Tang Clan leader the RZA’s rhythmic beats complement and define the grooves of “October Song”; and the languid, breathy atmosphere expressed by “Moody’s Mood For Love” couldn’t have been achieved without hip-hop producer Salaam Remi’s guiding hand, which lends the entire record its organic, natural feel. In fact, the import of Remi and Nick Movshon’s bass guitar performances cannot be overstated — nearly every track relies on the low-end to establish its lateral hipshake.
However, in spite of the contributions from these many accomplished and highly varied talents, “Frank” remains a decidedly simple album. One might expect the vintage Dap Kings colliding with the modern rap luminary RZA’s rhythm and sound effects to produce some kind of innovative blend of old soul and new hip-hop, but the disparate influences are implemented here with subtlety, and the whole ordeal comes off with a fluency that seems both effortless and a bit unremarkable. An hour straight of nascent Winehouse tries the patience for one sitting, but the quality and tenor remain more or less consistent throughout. While the sound is not revolutionary — the Dap Kings themselves have been doing similar, and arguably better, things with soul singer Sharon Jones for over a decade — it remains a refreshing change of pace to hear on today’s FM dial, if nothing else.
Despite having yielded the radio single “Fuck Me Pumps,” Winehouse and her co-conspirators have made a modernly vintage funk/soul record that is entirely inoffensive, and perhaps even a bit safe — something that would probably sit most comfortably alongside the Ray Charles and Bob Dylan compendiums at your local Starbucks. “Frank”’s middling neutrality is both its most practical hallmark and its most deadly trapping; it may be a plainly listenable record, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a plain listen.