It has been twenty years since the release of ‘Frank’, Amy Winehouse’s debut album. Vocal Jazz and Soul are no longer considered vintage, retro-leaning genres to the British public, Adele has become a global superstar, and though sadly no longer with us, Amy Winehouse’s legacy has undergone the redemptive arc that often occurs over time. Now the lurid press headlines, the mental health, drug and legal issues, alongside the awards and record-breaking sales that were Amy Winehouse’s short public career have passed and dimmed somewhat from the public consciousness, we look back at a moment of optimism, excitement and burgeoning talent as we reconsider Amy Winehouse’s debut album, ‘Frank’, as our classic album of the month.
A writer and performer as she grew up, Winehouse was schooled in theatre and singing before joining the National Youth Jazz Orchestra as a lead vocalist. While her debut album would draw heavily on Soul, and her personal style and look would draw on Ronnie Spector, her earlier musical influences were more rooted in Jazz, from Dinah Washington through Sarah Vaughan to Frank Sinatra and his fellow crooners. A live performer of Jazz standards, Winehouse initially recorded some tracks with producer Salaam Remi Gibbs, who had worked with The Fugees on ‘Fu-Gee-La’, as well as on several tracks by Nas, and most recently Ms. Dynamite on the hit- single ‘Dy-Na-Mi-Tee’. The tracks they produced caught attention, and ultimately Winehouse signed with Island Records and began work, alongside Salaam Remi and several other producers, on what would ultimately become ‘Frank’.
An apt title, if ever there was one, ‘Frank’ was predominantly written by Winehouse with her lyrics establishing her as an open, blunt, emotive, and at times visceral songwriter. That is clear from the opening track and lead single, ‘Stronger Than Me’. Built on a stripped-back Hip Hop beat by Salaam Remi, the track is lyrically contradictory and hasn’t aged well. As Winehouse tells her partner he’s not meeting expectations, she draws out tired gender stereotypes that dip into territory that appears ill-considered today. Nonetheless, the track brought her an Ivor Novello Award for ‘Best Contemporary Song Musically and Lyrically’ at the time. It is, more or less, the only reminder that twenty years have passed since ‘Frank’ was released.
Elsewhere are more timeless tracks like ‘October Song’, built on a Hip Hop beat that references Sarah Vaughan as Winehouse’s Jazz vocals recount the life and loss of her pet bird, Ava. While fitting a broadly traditional Jazz Pop narrative of love and loss, the fact the song is about a pet fits the contrary nature of Winehouse’s lyricism and developing aesthetic. It is, however, one of the more innocent tracks here where neither sex nor heartbreak are at its core relationship.
That heartbreak comes at its most pained on ‘Take The Box’, a breakup track detailing the recovery of her possessions from her ex’s home. As she lists the items, a Moschino bra, and Frank (Sinatra CD?), she errs over the feelings of missing her former lover and his being no good for her. Conflicted Amy would go on to be much more deeply explored on her mega-hit follow-up, ‘Back to Black’, but ‘Take The Box’ captures the palpable emotion like few other of her tracks.
Elsewhere, ‘In My Bed’ would draw most strongly on Hip Hop, a thread that runs throughout the album. Blurring the line of influence between Jazz and Neo Soul further, Winehouse name-checks Outsidaz, Erykah Badu and Beastie Boys on the piano-backed ‘You Sent Me Flying/Cherry’, a track that picks up a Hip Hop snare shuffle in its latter half.
Winehouse herself expressed displeasure with the album, saying a year or so later that she had never listened to it all the way through. Perhaps this is down to programming as much as anything as two Jazz standards bisect the album, first ‘Moody’s Mood For Love’, complete with Dub-like bass and echo-laden percussive stabs for flavour, and then ‘(There Is) No Greater Love’ with added vinyl hiss and crackle. The latter is the least Amy Winehouse track on the album, with her contralto vocals feeling compressed and prescriptive.
While not an instant chart-topper on its release, the best-known track, ‘Fuck Me Pumps’, has aged gracefully perhaps in part because it lacks the saturation of her later singles. While the track starts off as a scurrilous yet witty call out of the wannabe-WAG lifestyle, Winehouse ultimately pays some regard as a celebration of the commonality of nightlife. Capturing Winehouse’s smirking vocals, joyous with a knowing glance, ‘Fuck Me Pumps’ hints at the bolder sounds she’d find global fame with on ‘Back To Black’.
Leaning on producer Salaam Remi, ‘Frank’ has the undercurrent of Hip Hop and Neo Soul running throughout. Yet, the Winehouse’s Jazz background sits slightly off-kilter from the musical backing, creating a tension that adds extra dimension and flavour as though she’s always slightly ahead or behind the beat. Joined by Mark Ronson, a lover of retro Soul and Jazz with an ear for contemporary Pop hits, Amy Winehouse would go on to exploit her divergent vocal styling as she grasped audiences with a string of hits. Yet on her debut, she had already shown that with stripped-back beats and piano backing, she could command attention and draw in audiences. On release there was some bemusement, that rich voice couldn’t have come from a white girl from North London surely?, but in time her style would be elevated to the level of pastiche. In her footsteps would come other big, timeless voices from Duffy and Adele, while in the US Lady Gaga would credit Amy Winehouse with helping to show that audiences were ripe for solo female performers doing things their own way. Before all the headlines, before the chart-topping singles and the world tours, before it all got too much, there was the voice. Jazz or Neo Soul, blunt lyrics, Hip Hop beats, innocent songs about dead pets, none of it really mattered when Amy Winehouse had a voice that captivated and demanded attention. The fact that she wielded it with such a deft touch is what made her special and ‘Frank’ was the beginning.