North Wales siren Duffy is the latest of a formidable crop of female singer-songwriters to be overloaded with the desperate expectations of an industry in decline, and the most directly comparable, in terms of sound and style, to the all-conquering Amy Winehouse. Duffy's look on Rockferry is oh-so-Sixties, and her sound is no less retro – but rather than the hopeful comparisons with Dusty Springfield that any singer would struggle to fulfil, her strident tones recall more youthful forerunners, notably the evergreen Lulu and pre-Beatles pop princess Helen Shapiro. Not a bad place to be coming from, certainly; but then, unlike Amy, there doesn't seem to be anything "bad" about Duffy at all, which may be the Achilles heel of this impressive debut.
The album opens with the melodramatic piano chords of the title track, joined by a few lonely shakes of tambourine before strings and twangy guitar combine to usher in a noirish ambience of small-town doubt and reproach. "There's no seat for the journey away from town," sings Duffy, adding, "A bag of songs and a heavy heart won't get me down." But isn't that the point of soul music – to express that depression, and thereby expunge it? Too often on Rockferry, Duffy doesn't sound like she's inhabiting these songs she's co-written so much as adapting to them, using an adopted language whose subtleties she has yet to learn.
It's one thing to sprinkle the period references around – the hook melody of "Warwick Avenue" that short-circuits one's memory back to "My Girl"; the gentle, scudding Motown groove to "Delayed Devotion" that could have come from a Velvelettes or Marvelettes cut; the elegant Bacharach style of "Stepping Stone" – but it's another thing entirely to transcend clichés and cut listeners to the quick.
"Rockferry" and the follow-up single "Mercy" are the tracks that stand out as something special, the latter's uptempo organ funk providing the album's one truly memorable groove. Elsewhere, she's less persuasive. Ultimately, it's a matter of life and death, of living the little deaths in these songs, and that's what stops Rockferry from delivering on the extravagant claims made for Duffy. Winehouse can easily surmount the retro arrangements of her songs because she so obviously lives them – she told us she was trouble, what did we expect? – but it's much harder for the blander Duffy to escape the soul stylings and Spectorisms of Rockferry. Which wouldn't be a problem at all, had not our interest been so excessively piqued.
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