She's the boss

May 9, 2007 at 12:00 am

Joss Stone is a 20-year-old from Devon in southeast England with Julia Stiles' lithe body, a saucy billow of long hair, a penchant for vaguely Janis Joplin hippie fashions, and an angelic, soaring voice that sounds like she grew up in a Southern Baptist gospel choir. Amy Winehouse is a 23-year-old north Londoner flaunting Dita Von Teese lissome curvalisciousness, a mane of lush jet-black hair perfectly suited for Ronnie Spectoring up, a face that straddles Carly Pope adorable and drag-queen sexuality questioning, a Cyndi Lauper-ian knack for looking smashing in the slightly off cocktail dress, and a smoky, velvety voice that sounds like she came up riding shotgun with a chitlin-circuit traveling big band.

And that I enjoy their new albums as much as I do makes me a sexist racist — but more on that in a bit.

Credit underappreciated producer extraordinaire Raphael Saadiq with making Stone's Introducing Joss Stone (Virgin) so tight. Saadiq shrugs off the earth tones-hued nostalgia of Stone's 2003 The Soul Sessions (produced by underappreciated '70s soul-shouter Betty Wright) and 2004's Mind, Body, and Soul (with more help from Wright) for something more booty-quaking and contemporary. It puts Stone now squarely in line with frivolous dance-pop, from Christina Aguilera to Shakira, but it does so with a clever panache.

You suspect Saadiq knows that what's bewitching about Stone is the frisson generated by that agilely sensuous voice coming from such a compact young woman. She sings like she's been burned by the quicksand traps of sin and looks like she's barely old enough to vote. And Saadiq cradles that wily package in roiling rhythm pockets of percussive pelvic taunts, choruses of brassy horn come-ons, harmonized background vocal teases, and sultry production accents on the album's front-loaded burners "Headturner," "Tell Me 'Bout It," and "Put Your Hands on Me." A squishy clank like a supersized sponge dirty dancing with a trombone carves out the sidewalk-strutting bob of the latter, which is peppered with sashaying turntable wiggles, uh-huh'ing sax honks, and winking keyboard punctuation.

Over this woozy good time, Stone lets loose with a full-throated carousing of the this-girl-needs-it soul moan — "Baby I'm hungry more than I need/Bring me your sugar and pour it all over me" — before belting out the titular chorus, staying just this side of oversinging. She bodily leans into the short vowels in the chorus' "your" and "hands," lending the curt words a thirsty insistence, and then breathily sighs the line ending "baby." What's more, the production flourishes recede during the bridge after the second chorus until the song becomes a streamlined percussion seduction, enabling Stone to uncork a head-spinning breakdown of long vowels and hard consonants, vocally wiggling around as if you're looking her in the eye while you're going down.

Not even Saadiq's winning mixes help all of Introducing's 14 tracks match the ribald intensity of the lead seven (save the Jill Scottish "Bad Habit"), and the string of tired neo-soul balladry at the end really finishes off in a sea of clichés.

Winehouse's Back to Black (Republic) doesn't make the same mistake with its ballads, thanks to how she reinvents shopworn themes. In "Just Friends" — a glistening, Afrodisiac take on late-'50s bossa nova — Winehouse cannily marries illicit desire, longing and resignation, and wraps them all in a sumptuous indifference. Her song's narrator wonders when she and a lover will "get the time to be just friends" — and you're never sure if that means the time to get busy, get to know each other, or just be. She does and doesn't want to be "just friends," she isn't worried about the guilt — or his other woman — and yet something about the glint in her tremulous voice makes you think that when she dumps him she'll merely put a cigarette out in his drink and walk away.

Such is the brazen wizardry at work all through Back: updating almost arcane forms with but the slightest concessions to these modern times. "Me and Mr. Jones" is outright doo-wop — complete with a pompous waltz pace, the tuxedoed saxophone lines, the chaste bass stroll behind everything, and on down to the harmonized backing female singers — about a young woman getting pissed off about the guy who made her miss the Slick Rick show. Now she thinks he "ain't worth guest list" and doesn't "mean dick to me." Cue a harmonized, echoing "dick to me" background vocal and you're beginning to understand just how faithful to the classics producers Saalam Remi and Mark Ronson keep Back.

And old has never sounded so fun. Throughout, the music is mid-'60s Motown big and Winehouse's lyrical concerns are Mike Skinner thin and observational, and typically orbit the apathy of sometimes impudent romantic decisions tempered with an appreciation of intoxicants.

The title song is a Phil Spector behemoth chugging along at a hypnotic gait as Winehouse kinda/sorta shrugs off a lover. "Tears Dry on Their Own" is a piece of Supremes sunshine about a gal coming to grips with her choices in lovers ("I'll be some next man's other woman soon," she admits in her beguiling, nasal purr). "He Can Only Hold Her" pirouettes around cascading horn charts and uplifting male background singers chanting "da-da-das" and "woo-woos" as Winehouse takes stock of a man who realizes his girl has already left him in her mind even though she's still in the room. "Addicted" puts a steady marijuana connection over a steady guy. And "Love Is a Losing Game" — well, you can probably guess. Back to Black is a beguiling mix of familiar drapery covering a fresh take on genre — and it's why digging it makes me such a rube. It's tailor-made for the audience of white folks who like black music.

Now, R&B — like all mass musical forms, from indie rock to hip hop and techno — is a formally conservative art. What makes great R&B hasn't changed a lick since the days of Ruth Brown and Big Mama Thornton. And, as any pop music listener from the past 50 years knows, any time white people start reaping the benefits of the work of black people it presents a bit of a social, political, cultural and moral rub (see also: Presley, Elvis; rock 'n' roll, history; America, 18th- and 19th-century agrarian economy; etc.).

It's doubly slippery once you add gender to the mix. Contemporary pop's ability to chew through its fetching young female R&B singers of color as if they were disposable dancers in hip-hop videos — see also: Khia's "My Neck, My Back," Truth Hurts' "Addictive," Lumidee's "Never Leave You," Teairra Marie's "No Daddy," etc., which makes your heart break for the roller-skate jam of right now, Lil Mama's "Lip Gloss" — demands its own separate exploration.

And while better writers have more lucidly plumbed blue-eyed soul singers like Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke earning their R&B acceptance, that young women artists so rarely get singled out for the same sort of vocal passing only adds sexism to that racism.

Teena Marie, Basia, Lisa Stansfield, Dido, Christina Aguilera — the familiar list of white (or at least nonblack) women who "sound" vaguely black is well-trod. Less familiar are the unspoken assumptions of why that is — mainly, who would think a woman would be the instigator of such appropriation? It must be those string-pulling producers, white or black, calling all the shots. (And if the singing gal happens to look good in tight/revealing/no clothing for the cover image or magazine ad, that doesn't hurt either.)

Yes, that sex sells is an unavoidable given, but it doesn't make you feel any less skeezy when seeing Stone's naked, Day-Glo paint-covered body on the inside of Introducing. That she's straddling a similarly naked and body-painted Saadiq only complicates the image even further. Interracial sexuality isn't the proverbial last taboo — like the delusions we tell ourselves about being a classless society, America isn't culturally progressive either — but it's one of the most volatile, measured in how infrequently you see it explored in mainstream culture despite its omnipresent use for shameless luridness (keyword search "interracial porn" and see if anything comes up). Better yet, imagine Black Snake Moan with the racial roles switched.

And that's the fucked-up thing about race and gender politics in America: As Lakshmi Chaudhry noted in the April 2 edition of The Nation, the issue is not if racism trumps sexism or vice versa, it's that we passively permit race and gender to combat each other.

Sure, it's supposed to be all about the music, man, but when your co-worker tells you his younger twentysomething sister is also way into the Winehouse album, you are a bit shocked to realize that your first response is to wonder if that fact makes your own appreciation less or more pervy.

But only for a moment, because it's entirely too convenient to shrug, "Oh, fuggit: I just want to sing along and dance while no one is watching." And even if you don't have a soft spot for utterly disposable pop songs, this dilemma isn't limited to white folks singing R&B, people. I still can't decide if admitting that I'd like TV on the Radio a bijillion times more if it ditched the white dude makes me a racist or not.

Bret McCabe is arts editor for Metro Times' sister paper, City Paper in Baltimore. Send comments to [email protected]