Rockferry – Duffy (A&M 2008)
UK Chart Position – 1
US Chart Position – 4
And now for the second appearance of a Welsh Female Singer on my Essential CD countdown list, but unlike the first artist, a certain Dame with a sixty year recording career this is a flame which shone very brightly but without longevity.
This debut album was certainly one of the musical highlights of 2008 and was extremely successful. In the UK it stayed at number 1 for five weeks and remained in the charts for virtually two years. In the US, where it spawned just the one Top 30 single, the album did exceptionally well reaching the Top 5. Critically acclaimed as well as popular, it won a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal album and Best Album at the Brits in 1991 where Duffy became a triple award winner with victories in the Best British Female and Best British Breakthrough Act.
At this time British Females were enjoying a turn- about in fortunes caused at least in part by the huge international success of Amy Winehouse whose “Black To Black” had been released in 2006. Just a month before “Rockferry” charted, Adele’s first album “19” made the charts. I would concur with the Brits panel that Duffy had the better album. It’s surprisingly short coming in at just under 38 mins, so is not the greatest value for money CD on the list, but it is an album of consistently high quality. (The Deluxe edition, which I do not own, offers 7 more songs, so is certainly worth considering but it is the original version 10 tracker I am reviewing today).
Seven years on there has been the follow-up album which only achieved a fraction of the sales of its predecessors and not a great deal since. At the time it seemed that Duffy would become a long-lasting world-wide star. On the basis of this album I would hope we are in just a career hiatus rather than a permanent stall.
All of the songs were co-written by Duffy alongside three separate songwriting/ production teams. These are ex- Suede member and Guitar Legend Bernard Butler, Steve Booker and Jimmy Hogarth. Joining Duffy and Hogarth in songwriting is Eg White, who was responsible for perhaps the best song of the 00’s, “Leave Right Now” by Will Young (2003). The album contained three Top 40 singles (four if you count “Rain On Your Parade” from the Deluxe edition), and a debut single which reached 45.
Despite this debut single the first most people would have heard from Aimee Ann Duffy was the sublime “Mercy”. This track soared to the top of the charts just a couple of weeks before the release of the album and became an international hit (although quite a lowly 27 in the USA where it remains her only hit single). It was the reason why many people purchased the album and it also reached the top spot in amongst other places, New Zealand, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland. It captivated us all because it managed to sound both fresh and like the coolest forgotten Northern Soul track. The Wigan-Casino like video reinforced these connections but it sold like no other Northern Soul track had. The voice was different to all other female singers around at the time. The first time I heard it I actually wondered if it was an old track by Lulu remixed to give it a new Noughties coolness. It does seem to have that universal appeal of songs such as “Happy” and “Rehab” and is the most danceable track on the album. Duffy wrote this alongside Steve Booker. He has since gained another huge hit with John Newman’s “Love Me Again” which can very much be seen as a companion piece to this track. Despite the tempo it does fit in with the over-riding theme of the album.
“Rockferry” is an album of failed relationships- the need to tell someone it’s over, the need to move on. This is achieved with a range of musical styles. On most of the tracks there is a passivity, a recognition of the need to change but not being quite able to bring that about. Obviously, the most striking thing about the album is Duffy’s voice and there is a raspiness to it which can also show pain and vulnerability- rather like the greatest of soul singers and it creates a sound which fits in perfectly with the album themes. The other Steve Booker track “Stepping Stone” has more of an Adele/Paloma Faith feel. It reached number 21 as a UK single and sees Duffy showing determination not to patch things up with an ex who broke her heart. It is an extremely effective track.
The big hit for the Duffy/Jimmy Hogarth/ Eg White team was the delicious “Warwick Avenue” (UK#3) which joins the select group of hit songs named after tube stations (Baker Street, Waterloo, Uxbridge – are there any more? Okay, not Uxbridge, that’s where I grew up and I think I would know if it featured in a hit song). There’s a real story to this – an arrangement has been made to meet at Warwick Avenue for a talk to try and sort things out but there is the distinct impression that the mind has been made up, the actual talk might not do much good, relationship-wise, but the neutral territory will help the line to be drawn under the failed romance. This is a painful, vulnerable track which was enhanced by a very simple video of Duffy sitting in the back of a cab shedding the most heartfelt tears since the video of Sinead O Connor’s “Nothing Compares To You”. Their “Hanging On Too Long” has a gospelesque feel and reflects the desire to move on with a life- the difficulty of doing this is represented in “I’m Scared”- perhaps emotionally the lowest point on the album. Fear has replaced the relationship and Duffy sings of a time where;
Dust gathers on my stereo
‘Cause I can’t bear to hear the radio
The piano sits in a shaded space
With a picture of your face
I’m scared to face another day
‘Cause the fear in me just won’t go away
In an instant you were gone and I’m scared
The feelings at the end of a relationship are very effectively and very sensitively handled in this song.
The Bernard Butler co-written and produced tracks have a very big sound which is reminiscent of the work he did as McAlmont & Butler (David McAlmont helps out on backing vocals on a couple of these tracks). The simplest on display is the bluesy “Syrup and Honey” which may be my least favourite track on the album. The title track opens the album and from the introduction we get the feel of an updated Shangri-Las track, a sound which served Amy Winehouse so well on her “Back To Black”, but this has a rockier edge than Winehouse and a Butler guitar solo. It’s an epic production which does slightly overwhelm the song. Rock Ferry is an area of the Wirral where Duffy’s father grew up. It’s a very good starter to the album as the stall is being set out here. It shows the sound and the performer to very good effect. The best Butler/Duffy collaboration is saved to the end track, and this has become my favourite track from the CD. “Distant Dreamer” is the track that bucks the trend. It’s the one that says enough of this misery let’s give optimism a chance and as such it’s a perfect conclusion to the album as the message of hope brings us around to full circle. This is a great track with an excellent vocal performance and boy does it build. There is a real Spector-ish Wall of Sound going on here and the whole thing gets so big, with its honking sax and brass which almost sound like bagpipes. Listening to this I almost expect Roy Wood and Wizzard to come passing through. After so much dealing with failure throughout “Rockferry” its great to hear lyrics like;
I’m thinking about, all the things
I’d like to do in my life
I’m a dreamer, a distant dreamer
Dreaming far away from today
The whole thing is exhausting in its intensity and leaves the leaver feeling drained and yet exhilarated by such empowerment and knowing that Duffy will survive. There’s also a clever calm down before the end which further reinforces the full circle of the songs that have gone before.
Inexplicably, somewhere between the release of this album and Duffy’s second 2010’s “Endlessly” the record buying public fell out of love with her. There’s nothing wrong with the follow-up, although the only track released as a single “Well Well Well” was not the best. The album got to number 9 and to 72 in the USA and the single didn’t make the UK Top 40. It’s not essential like “Rockferry” yet there are a good set of songs and it should have sold better. This must have hurt hard. Since 2010 Duffy has taken a back seat music-wise and concentrated on an acting career (her literal back seat performance in the “Warwick Avenue” is testament to her ability here). This album is, however, so well loved that there must surely be a career revival in the future. There is no doubt that she has been eclipsed by artists such as Adele, Paloma Faith, Jessie J and Jess Glynn but there is room in the upper reaches of the charts for this extremely talented writer and performer.
At time of writing this CD can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk for £3.47 new and used from £0.01. It can be downloaded for £4.99. American listeners can buy new from $10.66 and used from $0.01 and as a download for $9.49. In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.