With its bass-heavy syncopated beat, “Yeah, yeah, yeah” refrain, obvious ‘60s-pop frame of reference, and its singer’s immediately distinctive voice, “Mercy,” the debut single from Welsh export Duffy, seems like a calculated and even inevitable Amy Winehouse knockoff. While following Winehouse’s path isn’t necessarily a bad idea—speaking in terms of artistry rather than personal choices, that is—the remainder of Duffy’s first album, Rockferry, doesn’t support that reading of her work. That only partially works to Duffy’s advantage: Although she isn’t entirely derivative of Winehouse, she doesn’t do anything so inventive or progressive that she’s able to shake those comparisons.
Whereas Winehouse’s style works because she updates vintage soul within the context of modern celebrity and urban cultures, Duffy’s source of inspiration is the classic pop music of the 1960s and she works exclusively within that one-dimensional framework. On tracks like the standout ballad “Warwick Avenue” and the string-drenched “Hanging on Too Long,” she channels the likes of Lulu and Petula Clark. With her raspy, heavily accented warble, Duffy’s vocals are the primary selling point on these throwback cuts—she sounds like a dead ringer for Ronnie Spector on “Syrup & Honey,” which is no small accomplishment—and she shows a willingness to push her voice in unconventional ways, suggesting that she may mature into a vocalist of real depth.
Unfortunately, Rockferry doesn’t give her much opportunity to do that. The record’s retro-minded aesthetic is suffocating at times, to the extent that some of its antiquated lyrics frequently reduce to poorly-executed mimicry:(“I’m a trophy on your arm/You wear me like a charm/An accessory that suits/Your new suede boots,” from “Serious,” is one of the worst opening stanzas in recent memory, while closer “Distant Dreamer” is a pastiche of every god-awful American Idol coronation power ballad. The simplistic sentiments may be in character for the Top 40 hit parade from 40 years ago, but that’s about as interesting now as it was in 1968. And though Duffy’s voice has character, such weak songs don’t give any semblance of personality. Rockferry is a pretty nifty party trick of a record, but it’s not enough to justify Duffy’s Next Big Thing billing.