Saturday, March 08, 2008

Album Review: Duffy - Rockferry (4.5/5)

Adele and Duffy...Duffy or Adele. If they weren't such nice girls, these two could be having quite the rivalry at the moment. Both topped the prestigious BBC Sounds of 2008 poll at the beginning of the year (Adele at #1, Duffy at #2). Both have been tagged as "the next Amy Winehouse," of which I feel Duffy is more deserving (Adele is more "the next Lily Allen meets Norah Jones"). Both have been launched in about the same way: limited releases of more unusual tracks last fall to build buzz (Adele's "Hometown Glory," Duffy's "Rockferry"), followed by bigger, heavily promoted releases early this year (Adele's "Chasing Pavements," Duffy's "Mercy,"), and then finally the albums, Adele's 19 and this album, Rockferry.

Duffy won round one, her single "Mercy" is firmly planted at #1 on the UK singles chart, while Adele's "Chasing Pavements" only made it to #2, kept from #1 by, ahem, Basshunter. Now Duffy looks set to win round 2 as well. Adele's 19 was #1 in its first week, but moved only 73,000 units; Duffy's Rockferry looks set to sell twice that much in its debut week. The British public have spoken.

And I'm with them. While I like 19, Rockferry is the superior album, a gorgeous and swinging piece of retro pop. Like Amy Winehouse's Back to Black it recalls the sound of heavily produced '60s pop quite well, but while that album was a mix of nerve and tragedy, Rockferry is more cheerful, even if it doesn't reach the emotional highs and lows of Winehouse's disc. The emotions are there, but they don't run as deep; thankfully there's no evidence of a drug-fueled bender on the horizon.

The first four songs are fantastic--all of them winners, and showcasing different musical styles that all fit into the retro package Duffy is offering. "Rockferry" features a wall of sound combining piano, strings, electric guitar and acoustic guitar into a plodding rhythm. It's the album's biggest song in terms of sheer volume, and its starting-over message. This theme is carried over into "Warwick Avenue," although rather than moving to a small town she's settling in the tony London neighborhood of Maida Vale (I have a special affinity for this song, since the Warwick Avenue tube station was the closest to my flat when I lived in London, so I can just picture Duffy waiting outside there). This is also a very good song, back with strings that swell during the chorus and bass guitar that carries the melody through the verses.

Groovy "Serious" is upbeat, featuring more of those lovely strings, soulful even, with a bit of Motown swing. Whereas Mark Ronson sought to inject a modern sensibility in into Amy Winehouse's Back to Black, this just sounds like a long lost hit from years ago. Darker "Stepping Stone" was an instant highlight for me, an atmospheric ballad about the temptation to return to an abusive relationship ("You got your kicks you get your kicks from playing me. And the less you give the more i want so foolishly"). It's a haunting song, sad and beautiful. The only letdown in the first half is "Syrup and Honey," a minimal ballad of just Duffy and reverbing guitar that is very, very slow.

The second half has some great highlights too, notably "Hanging on Too Long," which steals its groove from "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," creating a dark, reflective mood for examining yet another failing relationship ("I was a fool for you, right from the start"). Then there's the above mentioned current hit "Mercy," which needs to explanation. This is brilliant pop. "Delayed Devotion" is another up-tempo mix of piano and strings, and intriguingly, Duffy sounds different somehow on this song, singing in a lower range than most of the other songs and reigning in her vocal power. As a singer, it should be said that she is very good, demonstrating a broad range and great control--a pleasure to listen to. Closing track "Distant Dreamer" ends the album on an up note. The building track finds Duffy dreaming of a better today. Even if she's still trapped in a bad relationship she can escape, at least in her mind.

I liked this album immediately, but throughout the week, the more I listened to it, the better it got, as the depth of the songs emerged. This is a powerful, confident debut from a singer I think we're going to be hearing a lot more from. Best album of the year so far.

Best: Mercy, Stepping Stone, Warwick Avenue, Serious, Distant Dreamer, Hanging on Too Long, Rockferry

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