OTR, Take 16: Amy Winehouse - Back to Black

I begin with something of an apology.

You folks are awesome: you were the first who jumped over to this new platform and signed up for On the Record on this new platform. And for the next few weeks, you'll likely be getting a version of OTR twice as I look to get more of the folks from LinkedIn over here. So, sorry for the duplicate emails ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Moving all of the earlier OTR takes over to the new platform made me realize how much I wrote about Winnie and Clare. My dogs (now dog, singular) are a big part of my life. I tend to like dogs more than most people.

I remember friends being puzzled by the premise of John Wick. But I got it intensely.

Do not get between a man and his dog.

Kill a man's dog? Fuck around and find out. An aside: the filmmakers had to fight like crazy to actually keep the dog-killing storyline in the film. The studio was very against it, worrying that audiences would find the murder of Daisy the beagle a step too far. If you've seen the movie (and if you haven't, shame on you), you know what the studio not only was okay with, but celebrated: a revenge tour in which Righteous Keanu slaughters 77 men by the end of the film. The kill count only increases in each subsequent film. But kill the dog? The studio didn't want it for exactly the reason that it gave John Wick heart and his mission purpose.

Now, I haven't killed anyone but I would be lying if I said that these past two weeks have been easy. Absence can be every bit as present as a physical presence. We've all experienced that odd, jarring sensation when a constant noise suddenly stops sounding. A refrigerator turns off. You move from the city to the country. You become far more aware of the fact that the sound isn't there than you ever were that the sound was there in the first place.

I haven't had the heart to take Winnie's leash down from the hook by the front door; it hangs there next to Clare's as though it might be needed.

Honestly not sure if the photo is crooked or my hanging job is... Wall smudges courtesy of Clare, mostly.

Anyway, I've let a bunch of balls drop over the past two weeks. Nothing customer-related, but I've been derelict in some projects I've promised to do. I'm incredibly grateful that the people I'm working with on those projects have given me some grace.

This morning is a bright, beautiful day in Pittsburgh. I love these kinds of mornings. As I'm typing, the sun is shining through the sliding door out to my porch, nearly blinding me. The vitamin D is most welcome.

Seattle is famous for having the most rainy days in the continental United States. Pittsburgh is less famous for having the most cloudy days, though it is equally true. When I was a kid, an English family lived down the street. One night when I was about 5, I was at their house for dinner and heard Mr. Wilson say to his wife, "You know, Liz, I didn't think it possible, but we ended up posted in a place with worse weather than London..."

"Alistair, no need to complain about the city with Owen here."

At the time I remember being mostly confused by the English sense of decorum, but now that I'm older I am mostly amused by the conversation about the weather. Pittsburgh can be dreary, especially around this time of year. February is hands down the worst. But mornings like this? Especially when there's some snow in the ground, reflecting the sunlight to blinding levels?

I feel like Superman getting powered up by the yellow sun.

This morning's record has a title that's something of a promise of upcoming Pittsburgh weather: Back to Black, Amy Winehouse's final record.

I've seen about nine different album covers for this record.

I've been talking about small gestures and gift-giving on LinkedIn this week. The Cliff's Notes version is this: you don't have to make a grand gesture to really touch someone – you just need to show that you see them.

Last week, OTR featured a record my buddy Dave Vaala sent me. This week's record is a gift my assistant, Kay Bernardo, gave to me for Christmas. (I'm not saying you will be featured in the newsletter if you send me records, but I'm not saying you won't, either 😂)

I knew a long time ago that Kay is a great fit and receiving this record was only confirmation of what I already knew. In November, I gave Kay the unenviable task of pulling and categorizing all of my LinkedIn posts. ("I thought this was going to be an incredibly boring assignment, but you almost make some of this business stuff interesting..." – lol.) In the process of cataloging my posts, she stumbled upon this newsletter and decided to send me an entirely unnecessary but very kind gift.

Get yourself a Kay.

Back in Black takes me back to a very specific place in my life: fall 2007. I was a 2L and my girlfriend's friend, Amanda, loved this record. I realize now, typing out "2007" that that was fifteen years ago, which mathematically makes sense, but is phenomenologically utterly baffling. It can't have been that long ago – but of course, it was.

I remember listening to this album sitting on the front porch of Amanda and Don's apartment as their landlord hit on my girlfriend. The rest of us watched, amused. It was a white brick house with red trim and a rather unkempt yard.

As I listen to the album today, I am struck by two things: Amy's voice, which is every bit as rich as I remembered it being, and Mark Ronson's production, which I don't remember at all. Amy's voice is the star of the show here, with a timbre and growl that is impossible to teach, but I'm more interested in Ronson's work. So much has, I'm sure, been written about the voice.

Let's focus on one of the singles from Back to Black, "You Know I'm No Good."

This track is a masterclass in production: the music serves as a partner in a tango, a give and take, a tease the whole way through. There's an incredible restraint to it that is supremely hard to pull off.

Let's just listen to the very opening of the track. We open with a drum beat that is full but not showy, some little frills on the snare to give a bit of a groove and some very, very subtle hi-hat hits, but nothing much to distract from the steady bass drum. Then comes a sinewy bassline. Again, it doesn't demand your attention, but adds another layer to the vibe. It's the kind of bassline that bassists will deride as "basic" but also secretly envy.

As the vocals come in, we get an easy, picked guitar line in our left ear and a keyboard hitting chords like a raspberry splashing into a glass of champagne. When we hit the prechorus, a tuba(!) kicks in underneath providing a blast of chest-hitting bass and baritone counterpoint and some horns kick in to give a mid-range tickle to the ear.

All of this happens both quickly and gradually. Effortlessly. The drummer is playing a masterclass throughout the song, modulating between the standard groove set up at the beginning of the track and slipping into a more insistent ride on the snare and bass drum through the chorus. The chorus slips right back into the groove with a wristy move on the snare.

I have a hard time listening to this album, now, as anything other than a conversation between Amy and Ronson. Amy's lyrics and tone play off the music beautifully on the best tracks. But like any relationship, sometimes the back-and-forth conversation gets tired, rote, or unharmonious.

We all have tried-and-true scripts with our partners (whether spouses, friends, business partners) that we too easily fall into. At best, variations on a theme; at worst, the same argument, the identical empty comforts.

But when it clicks, it's amazing. This morning, when "Me and Mr. Jones" came on, I literally stopped and put my phone down when Amy sang, What kind of fuckery is this – and the band comes in as she sings "fuckery" into a sassy G7 - Cmaj7 - C6 - Cmaj7 - Dm - Dm7 progression (that might not be exactly right – that's just what I hear) played by the smoothest lounge band on earth – you made me miss the Slick Rick gig.

I've probably listened to that intro 30 times this morning. That's a producer doing the work.

I hope all of you have a wonderful weekend, full of a recharging sun. Please spread the word about the new OTR platform. Tell your friends! Tell your enemies!

And finally: I'm doing a certifiably crazy thing and I'm inviting any of you to participate. I am writing a novel in public, Shitty First Draft all the way through publication. Please, come watch me slowly lose my mind in a one-man rendition of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

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