(Polydor/Rough Trade; 2008)
By Danny Roca | 10 December 2008
2008 has been incredibly fortunate for Duffy. The young Welsh ingénue was plucked from relative obscurity (the Welsh version of American Idol) and launched like a blinking foal on to the stage. But, unlike her neo-soul peers Adele, Eli Reed, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, or Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators, Duffy has the “benefit” of being a blonde, white woman. Controversially, this very point became part of Estelle’s rant about the misrepresentation of black British soul.
In Estelle’s defense it’s true that Rockferry stylistically nods towards blue-eyed soul’s glory days with scant recognition of soul’s other strains. Dusty Springfield, for one, is an obvious influence. The doom-laden pianos of the title track and the stop-start dramatics of “Warwick Avenue” recall the high melodrama of “I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten” and the shuffle of “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself,” respectively. Although it’s unfair to fall to comparisons, there is one noted difference: Springfield’s biggest gift, apart from her voice, was her instinctive extemporisation and phrasing which made melodically linear songs such as “Son Of A Preacher Man” so vibrant. “Stepping Stone” is a perfect example. Despite being a doe-eyed torch song that shares a rhythm track with “Walk On By” and has some lovely vibes work, the song is marred by its repetitive verse/chorus and even more so by Duffy’s hesitance to break free from its parameters.
Her vocal distinctiveness does do a lot of the work for her. Even on the “Rehab”-aping “Mercy” (just replace “no no no” with “yeah yeah yeah”), it’s her strange country-esque twang that keeps the copyright lawyers from the door. Where the singles rely on her tone alone to portray her personality, a possible failing of the record company, the album tracks persevere and show the power of her delivery, at last allowing her interpretative skills room to flourish. On “Distant Dreamer,” a soaring juxtaposition of kitchen sink gravitas and Starlight Lounge anthemics, she explores a seemingly endless crescendo with a pining falsetto. “Serious” sees her swap from a gravelly purr to holler, both on the verge of distorting through sheer volume.
Ironically, even though she is often conceived of as just a voice, and indeed Bernard Butler’s production work frames her voice with uncharacteristically subdued arrangements—there’s no spectre of Spector here like on the face-melting “Yes”—Duffy shares writing credits on all of the songs. Whether Butler takes the backseat, honing her vintage sound as Mark Ronson, or if she’s just humming along to his guitar lines is hard to tell. To be honest, with songs as seasoned and woeful as “Syrup & Honey” it’s difficult to care. If anything, it puts paid to Alison Goldfrapp’s comments that Duffy is nothing more than a business model based on Winehouse’s cross-over appeal.
Although flawed, Rockferry holds a startling amount of promise. But is this down to circumstance? The real quandary comes in when this trend for classicist soul falls out of favour. With Solange making waves and Jamie Lidell going back to basics, there could be some mileage yet. In this climate, Rockferry and her new single “Rain On Your Parade” are still chiming positively in people’s ears. Also, with appearances on The View, Saturday Night Live, and Letterman, a song on the Sex And The City soundtrack, and a duet with the Game under her belt, her ambitions to gain international acclaim and some longevity are taking shape. As with most lauded debuts, it’s the next step which makes or breaks an artist. 2009 is going to be a very interesting year.