Lioness is not Amy Winehouse's long-lost gem or interrupted follow-up album, nor is it a revealing view of a tortured star in the fraught final stages of her life. Instead, in true record-industry fashion, Lioness is a collection of odds-and-sods cobbled together over the course of nine years of recordings to create something that kinda-sorta feels like an album. Executive produced by longtime partner Salaam Remi, who helmed her 2003 debut album, Frank,Lioness carries little of the subversive swagger or playful arrogance of the Mark Ronson-dominated Back to Black. Whether it's merely all the material that was left, or an effort to salvage her image after years of tabloid drama and self-abuse, Lioness presents a picture of a talented singer at her most restrained and polite. And let's be honest: Polite is the last thing we expect (or want) from Amy Winehouse.
That's not to say the results aren't satisfying: No matter what she's singing, it remains thrilling to hear that voice come to life again. On Lioness, for better or for worse, she takes on the role of standards singer: It feels like a hearkening back to her jazzy Frank days, the result of having Remi at the head of the project rather than Ronson. When it works, it really works: Opener "Our Day Will Come" is a gorgeous blend of triumph and autumnal wistfulness, a savvy intro to a record that's bound to evoke emotions just as nuanced and conflicted in its listeners. However, on tracks like "The Girl From Ipanema" or first single and Tony Bennett duet "Body and Soul", she sounds like a lounge singer, that unmistakable wit and smarmy charm only a faint glint in otherwise serviceable performances.
Considering that Mark Ronson-- producer of her signature tracks like "Rehab"-- is probably more responsible for her fame than anyone else, it's surprising to see his involvement reduced to such a minuscule level. As ever, his contributions are the highlight: A new version of the Zutons' "Valerie" turns what was a tongue-in-cheek cover into one of her most infectious vocal performances. Meanwhile, his melodramatic rendering of Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" toes the line between elegant and overblown, but better yet it's a shroud of pomp surrounding one of Winehouse's most delicately powerful vocals. When she breaks out into her best falsetto on the track's bridge, it's one of the few moments on Lioness that feels truly, heartbreakingly poignant, enough to cut through its stodgy accompaniment.
Winehouse's best material never came from covers or standards, however, but her personality: her bitter sarcasm, her flagrant profanity, and her dominant-but-demure air of not-giving-a-fuck. Even though half of Lioness is by her own pen, it's a different view of Winehouse's songwriting persona: The gorgeous ballad "Half Time" is endearing but lacks the sardonic bite of her other slower material like "Wake Up Alone" (which itself is included in an alternate Remi-produced version here), and it's easy to imagine the fake-cutesy "Best Friends, Right?" being more effective given an arrangement that wasn't so transparently cutesy. Back to Blackhighlight "Tears Dry on Their Own" is present in its "original version," an almost unrecognizably elegiac arrangement that on the other hand not only emphasizes the strength of Winehouse's own songwriting but its diversity as well.
Chalk it up to fine-tuned and image-conscious execution, but there's little on Lioness: Hidden Treasures that sounds throwaway, or like it should have never been released; but there's equally little that sounds absolutely essential. Released before the album, the Nas collaboration "Like Smoke" seems like an attempt at a new Winehouse jam, a pertinent reminder of her slightly more adult-contemporary-challenging "urban" side, the part of her that made her more than just a Grammy-adorned, technically proficient singer. Here the track sounds like a guide vocal, unsure and smothered in reverb, with Nas filling in an excess of white space rather than just guesting. On the otherwise funny, doo-wop-styled "Between the Cheats", her detached drawl enters full-on mumble territory, Winehouse sounding like she either can't remember or can't enunciate the words. The chorus of backing vocals feels mocking as a result, but it's a necessary moment of discomfort on a record that sometimes feels like it's desperately trying to sanitize a wild spirit after years of chaos.
If that all sounds a little negative, it's because Lioness is still weighed down with the baggage that goes along with any posthumous compilation-- but as these things go, it's a pretty strong disc. It flows well, and if Winehouse didn't sound so oddly neutered on so much of it, Lionesscould easily be another solid entry in her catalog. As it stands, though, it sounds like the anachronistic time-travel job it is, going backward through the career of an artist who had a very distinct developmental arc. At least in one regard, Island and Salaam Remi have done the "honorable" thing: There's no pretense of artistic intention here, and no exploitative stabs at an artist in the most vulnerable moments of her short life. But in their mission to present Winehouse as a singer first and foremost, whiting out her personal problems and demons-- the very things that made Back to Black such a transcendent album in the first place-- they reduce her to her pre-Black standard of budding talent. Instead of adding anything concrete to her legacy, Lioness only reaffirms what we already knew about her, and hopefully why she deserves to be remembered as an artist rather than a media circus.