Listening Booth: Duffy, “Rockferry”
It’s a new year, and with it comes another British pop-soul diva to tempt us. You may recall that a very young Joss Stone turned up from out of nowhere (actually, the English midlands) a few years back, and under the guidance of soul legend Betty Wright she stole our hearts with a very authentic-sounding retro soul album. More recently there was Corinne Bailey Rae; I’m not going to comment on her since I haven’t heard that much of her music, but what I did hear wasn’t very appealing. The hugely popular Amy Winehouse is perhaps the biggest player in this particular sweepstakes. Now along comes Welsh songstress Duffy. My distaste for singers with one name is palpable, but can you blame me? Maybe you can come up with someone who’s deserving of praise, but please, don’t let it be Madonna or Cher. The only one I can think of who’s truly worthy is Dion, and he was doing it long before anyone else. Of course he had to contend with the likes of Fabian, so some things never change. Am I missing anyone? Sting? Not so much, thanks.
I’m not about to tar Duffy with my one-name theory without giving her music a fair shot, and you know what? It’s pretty damned good stuff. This could be another one of my pet theories going out the window. Or maybe I should call it a rule, because rules always have exceptions. What we have here is a collection of very strong tunes, well sung, and mostly written by the artist. It’s blue-eyed soul, to be sure, but from a different school than Joss Stone’s early work. Where Joss channeled Aretha — see, it’s really cool to have two names but be so great that people need only call you by one — on her first album, Duffy draws from the smooth school, inspired by artists like Dionne Warwick (“Stepping Stone”), Lulu (“Serious”), Mary Wells (“Delayed Devotion”), and yes, Dusty Springfield (the Phil Spector-like production “Distant Dreamer”). It’s been a big year for Dusty, what with the great Shelby Lynne tribute album released back in January.
Perhaps you’ve heard Rockferry‘s first single, “Mercy.” It’s very cool, but not really representative of the rest of the album, which is taken at a more stately, less funky pace. “Warwick Avenue,” the album’s second single, is much more of a piece with the rest of Rockferry. From the reverbed, chopping guitar strokes to the swirling strings, producer Bernard Butler (ex-Suede) has done a superb job of re-creating a sound that was very much a part of the ’60s and early ’70s.
Duffy is an artist with enormous potential. She hasn’t quite found her voice yet, though what she has is pretty spectacular. Given a few more years, she will have a magnificent instrument. Call me a pessimist, but I have very little hope that she’ll survive the corporate pressure she’s about to face. They’ll try to mold her into something more palatable to a wider audience, i.e. more bland, just as they did to Joss Stone. Of course, she may insist on remaining true to her art, but the temptation to compromise will be great. So I’m not falling in love with any more retro soul singers, at least not until the second album. What we’re left with for now is this very strong debut and the distant hope that Duffy will continue down this road.
Rockferry (A&M) will be released in the U.S. on May 13.