It’s hard not to warm to the neo-soul movement that’s sprung up the last couple years. There is no shortage of music fans that wish Motown and Muscle Shoals were still around, and there’s always been room for sultry crooners (of all races) belting songs of sadness and exultant joy over Technicolor-bright instrumentation that would put a smile on Phil Spector’s weathered face. Sure, there’ve been some low points in this new era of Dusty Springfield disciples (“Fell in Love With A Boy” is beyond terrible), but c’mon, who doesn’t get a pep in their step whenever they hear “Rehab” blasting out of someone’s speakers? Now there’s a new contender in the British neo-soul sweepstakes: Duffy, a 23-year old Welsh crooner with a surprisingly warm voice, a sharp production staff, and a massive swell of critical acclaim behind her. Fortunately, most of the praise is deserved, and Rockferry, her debut album, is a worthy addition to the genre.
Rockferry has been in the offing for nearly four years, and the craft exhibited throughout shows that the time was well-spent. Suede guitarist Bernard Butler and über-collaborator Steve Booker made significant contributions to both the songcraft and production, invaluable elements to any soul album. “Syrup and Honey” consists only of Butler’s heavily-reverbed guitar gently intertwining with Duffy’s world-weary croon, while “Stepping Stone” boasts torch-singer piano and strings worthy of the Walker Brothers. Album opener “Rockferry” features airy violins, thundering drums, and a stinging lead guitar by Butler that sounds like it was plucked right from “Metal Mickey,” and closer “Distant Dreamer” melds a soaring saxophone with a grand homage to the Wall of Sound. But there are also upbeat tunes, including first single “Mercy,” which chugs along with Supremes-style “oohs,” a thumping breakdown that leaves Duffy to moan over razor-sharp drumming, and a massive chorus buoyed by more strings and snapped-off riffs. “Mercy” would’ve slotted in just fine on Rhino’s comprehensive girl-group box set, and that’s as high a compliment as I can pay the song.
I’ve read people opining that Duffy’s lyrics are trite and uninteresting, which is a laugh – it wasn’t like Aretha Franklin, God bless her, had Dylan Thomas or Alexander Pope penning her tunes or anything. If you’ve heard enough of these kinds of albums, you know what you’re going to get, and the only things that really matter are the production and the voice. The production’s gotten its due, which leaves us with the question of Duffy’s ability to make the songs work. While she doesn’t have the I-don’t-give-a-shit brassiness of Amy Winehouse or the astounding pipes of the Queen of Soul, Duffy still has an impressive range and (more importantly) the ability to mold her voice to whatever the song demands. Whether it’s the vulnerability of “I’m Scared,” the wistfulness of “Warwick Avenue,” or the sexy come-hither pleading of “Mercy,” Duffy shows she’s more than capable of striking a mood, be it subtle or all-out.
I found it interesting that a radio commercial for Rockferry mentioned Duffy’s sold-out appearance at the Harlem Apollo. There’s always been an undercurrent with white soul singers, where the desire to be accepted as legitimate can often stifle the music itself. Dusty Springfield didn’t have that problem (she was too damn good), Winehouse doesn’t (she’s her own force of nature, which, unfortunately, also seems to be her downfall), and I don’t think Duffy will, either. The songs are too good, the production too strong, and her voice worthy of praise. I’m not sure how many avenues you can travel in this genre, but the one Duffy’s on is good enough for me.