Disillusioned Diva With Glimmers of Soul
Amy Winehouse is a tease. The songs on her second album, “Back to Black” (Universal Republic), revive the sound of 1960s and 1970s soul with tales of plunging into temptation and toughing out the consequences. She drinks, she cheats, she falls for the wrong guys, she cries; she refuses rehab with a magnificently simple refrain, “I said no, no, no.”
But the way she delivers those songs is far less forthright. At the Highline Ballroom on Tuesday night, she treated them with a shifting blend of casualness and concentration, arbitrary improvisation and precise inflections. She connected with the songs only intermittently, though when she did, she made a listener want more.
Ms. Winehouse is English, and British soul singing has always been at least once removed from its African-American sources. It doesn’t have the foundation that American singers often get by singing in church, since British singers are more likely to learn soul style from their record collections.
Ms. Winehouse, 23, is also separated from the music she draws on by a generation or two. Soul is a vintage style for her, a retro choice. Her backup band, the Dap-Kings, included two male singers in dark suits doing synchronized dance moves. They made a sartorial contrast to Ms. Winehouse in her halter top, tattoos and low-cut jeans, occasionally pointing a finger or pouting to hint at an old soul pose.
Ms. Winehouse has grown up on hip-hop’s version of R&B, which chops the old dramatic arcs of soul and gospel into sound-bite hooks and showy, almost randomly applied slides and turns. Her voice glints with possibility: tart, smoky, ready to flirt or sob, and capable of the jazzy timing of a Dinah Washington or the declamation of soul singers like Martha Reeves and Carla Thomas. What she doesn’t have, and may not want, is the kind of focus the older singers brought to their songs. Onstage Ms. Winehouse added a British layer of detachment with a performance that switched between confession and indifference.
She made songs like “Just Friends” — about trying to pull away from an illicit affair, because “the guilt will kill you if she don’t first” — into games of tone and phrasing: withholding a line and then breezing through it, stretching out a note over the band’s steady beat (and its not-so-straightforward riffs; the horns quoted Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”).
But as the set continued, she started to dig into the songs. The moaning, gliding notes took on an ache or a flamboyance, and the pauses became sly and coquettish or pained. Her spontaneity grew both defiant and playful.
It didn’t always work. In “Rehab” her elongated phrases may have intended to suggest she was dragging her feet, but instead she robbed the song of its punch lines. Yet every so often she would simply nail a line, a verse, a whole song: inserting a suspenseful silence before the profanity that leaps out of “Me and Mr. Jones,” or sounding both mournful and perversely self-satisfied in “You Know I’m No Good,” or capturing the self-deluding hope and repeated disappointment of “Back to Black.”
If Ms. Winehouse were a purely old-fashioned soul singer, she’d just be a nostalgia act, though one with some telling songs. Her self-consciousness, and the bluntness she has learned from hip-hop, could help lead soul into 21st-century territory. But on Tuesday her performance only partly lived up to what her voice and her songs might hold. And a set that lasted less than an hour made her even more of a tease.