"Back to Black," Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse's second album is a ballsy, brassy, neo-soul affair with enough surly attitude to stand down a ship full of sailors. That it also happens to have been made by a tattooed 23-year-old Jewish Londoner with a beehive hairdo only adds to its unexpected charm. Winehouse's husky, honeyed voice is a helluva instrument, but it's her chutzpah that makes the album go. When she says goodbye to a lover with a tossed-off "You don't mean dick to me," on "Me and Mr. Jones," she does it with the casual élan of a femme fatale flicking ash from a cigarette. Likewise, in an age of rehab overdose, it's nice, on "Rehab," to hear her kick and scream so sexily about not wanting to visit the place with the padded walls. Unfortunately, "Back to Black's" music, an amalgam of soul vocals and Brill Building bounce, is less forward thinking. For all its catty charm, the album never shines with the spark of something new; there's a template for this stuff, and you only have to go back as far as Macy Gray or Lauryn Hill to find it. But if Winehouse had invented something fresh to go along with her vocal gift and personal charisma, we'd be talking about the arrival of a once-a-generation star. As it stands, she's merely delivered one of the year's most purely enjoyable albums.
Favorite track: "Rehab" (hear it on Audiofile)
"Undiscovered," James Morrison
Today's second installment of "Young White Brit Plays Soul Music" features the wispy James Morrison. "Undiscovered" is a perfectly decent album, and occasionally more than that, but the very thing that makes Winehouse's album work so well is exactly what Morrison lacks. The kid's got a nice voice, with a comely burr on the vowels and an appealingly desperate edge, but his songs -- and personality -- are generic generic generic. Some of Morrison's lyrics could have come from a fridge-magnet poetry kit: "The time has come"; "It all can change before you know it's gone"; "I know that it's a wonderful world when you're here with me"; etc. -- the man loves him some platitudes. For all the burnished warmth of Morrison's voice, there's nothing sly or self-aware about "Undiscovered," no wit or subversion, nothing that suggests he thinks or feels anything interesting. He should have a long career, though, because if Morrison is as formally talented and emotionally unengaging as "Undiscovered" makes him seem, there's no reason to think he couldn't churn out this kind of great-tasting, zero-calorie pop indefinitely. I hope he proves me wrong.
Favorite track: "One Last Chance"
"Don't Tell Columbus," Graham Parker
Along with Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, Graham Parker came to prominence at the end of the '70s as one of England's new wave of angry young men. Parker may have never exceeded the white-hot indignation of classic albums like "Squeezing Out Sparks" and "Howlin' Wind," but he has settled nicely into the role of inspired misanthrope. In truth, calling Parker an English Tom Petty wouldn't be that far off the mark, in both sound and sentiment; like Petty's last album, 2006's "Highway Companion," "Don't Tell Columbus" is full of folk rock played with conviction, ingenuity and heart. The wheezing harmonica of the title track and sinister guitar line of "England's Latest Clown" are just two of the many details that raise the album's music above pro forma bar band chugging. Parker's music hasn't changed much over the years, but the angry irony of lines like "Stick to the Plan's" "Don't pay much attention to what the experts say/ Too much intelligence just gets in the way," shows that his pen has sharpened. And the way Parker's voice has grown even craggier since his youth -- sneering is now his default vocal sound -- ensures that his irascibility feels genuine.
Favorite track: "England's Latest Clown"
-- David Marchese