Wednesday, December 8, 2010

pop*eye...Duffy — Endlessly (2010)


Endlessly (2010)

3 star rating

By far the most successful act to have emerged from the post-Winehouse vogue for female blue-eyed soul singers, Duffy follows her BRIT and Grammy-award-winning debut, Rockferry, with Endlessly, another collection in thrall to the sounds of black American 1960s pop.

Everything about it is knowingly, lovingly retro. From the album cover, on which she looks like a sugary French Yé-Yé chanteuse, to the short running time and roughly 50/50 balance of ballads and upbeat poppers, this could be a lost curio from 1963 were it not for some tell-tale signs of modernity.

But in striving for period legitimacy, Duffy and her co-writer/producer Albert Hammond (whose many hits include The Air That I Breathe for The Hollies and his own The Free Electric Band) are too often confined by their influences: much of their material sounds authentic but insubstantial.

In its favour, the album boasts rich, crisp production values, immediately apparent on opener My Boy, one of the few songs to sound as though it emerged from the 21st century. And yet despite its squelching synths it’s essentially an update of the classic girl group sound, a template which dominates throughout the album.

Bathed in strings, the heartache ballads, Too Hurt to Dance and Don’t Forget Me, are most obviously indebted to the pre-Beatles era. Pleasingly derivative, they showcase Duffy’s distinctive voice to the best of its abilities. On the more strident material, however, her mannered Ronnie Spector-isms tend to grate: witness the mechanically catchy single, Well, Well, Well, featuring the rhythm section from The Roots.

Branching out from her 1960s haven into the unexplored futuristic mania of the 1970s, Keeping My Baby is the sort of coquettish ersatz disco latterly peddled by Kylie Minogue. Replete with vinyl crackle, the title-track is a passable variation on a soul-pop ballad written countless times before, while the simple circular melody of banally philosophical closing track, Hard for the Heart, unconsciously borrows from Coldplay’s The Scientist.

Ironically, the best song is the most throwaway. A catchy bubblegum skank featuring kitschy pizzicato strings, Girl is preferable to Duffy and Hammond’s more earnest exercises in pastiche.

Though not without its charms, Endlessly is too slight and uneven to impress unconditionally. On paper, it makes sense to align Duffy with a craftsman of Hammond’s calibre: after all, she is fundamentally a purveyor of commercial pop. But their collaboration reaps only minor rewards.


This was the biggest failing of Duffy's Rockferry: that it didn't find the singer a personality as distinctive as her voice. Endlessly's "Well, Well, Well" made a promising first single because it showed off a sassier, brassier Duffy who could sell a song with the approximate lyrical content of "tsk, tsk" as a floor-filler on little more than attitude. But the single must have exhausted Duffy's inner diva, as the remainder of her sophomore disc indulges in Faux-town soul and preening lounge-act pop, like Dusty Springfield given a low-dose tranquilizer and force-fed the squeaky part of a dog's chew toy. The album lasts all of 33 minutes, and rigorously maintains a 1:1 ratio between dance tracks and ballads.

Of the two, it's the upbeat numbers that show the most promise. In one sense, Duffy follows American pop singers like Rihanna, Christina, and Usher in their embrace of retro club sounds, but rather than taking a ride on Gaga's disco shtick, she leaves the Eurotrash synths and titanic drum machines to litter someone else's Fame Monster cash-in. The best songs on Endlessly favor punchy brass and live percussion: "Well, Well, Well" benefits from ?uestlove's funk-flavored drumming, and "My Boy" makes smart use of the hi-hat to break up its straightforward 4/4 pulse. The pair find a credible space between Northern Soul and Motown disco that's been under-exploited in the craze for all thing's '80s, but even those numbers skew safe and cozy, hardly the thing to sate the dance world's appetite for edginess.

The bigger problem with Endlessly is that Duffy compensates for her lack of a star persona by overdrawing her syrupy rasp, already noted for its acquired tastiness, into a cartoonish oddity. Listening to "Girl," you'd think Duffy was seven; listening to "Too Hurt to Dance" you'd think she was 70. Meanwhile, "Don't Forsake Me" might be the dreariest tearjerker to be performed by a Muppet since "Bein' Green." Even without the affected singing, these ballads would still be unpalatably over-sweetened. Two years ago, Duffy had us begging her for mercy, but after 10 tracks of Endlessly, I was just begging her to stop.


Interview with

Speaking to Duffy, you might think she has recently emerged from a cocoon. "We last saw each other in 2009," she trills, "and my parting memories of being in public really were the BRIT Awards." It wasn't long before she was back to work, mind. "Around that time I truthfully and honestly began writing Endlessly, the new album. It came quite suddenly around that time, the making of a new record, and I was still committed to going to the rest of Europe, Australia and Japan. I had about eight months after the BRITs so I stopped roughly a year ago, and then I said 'right, I'm going to go and make a record'.

"It was a juggling process for me, going away, flying back to Albert's for a few days, then flying to Spain, then coming back. It was a nice time because I was winding down Rockferry and beginning something else, so that was cool." The Albert of whom she speaks is Albert Hammond Snr, the revered songwriter, with whom she quickly established a chemistry. She describes in a half sung, half spoken voice about how positive it was to be thinking of new music again. "It was good for me, because I really needed to prove to myself that I didn't get lucky. I needed to put pen to paper and see that I could do it all again, to see that it was easy for me, and I have to admit it was so reassuring. Albert and I wrote all these songs, about 25 songs in 12 days, pouring out of me. I needed that connection again, with what it is you know me for!"

The relationship with Hammond was natural from the start, it seems. "I think he was quite fascinated with me, because he'd been introduced to me as a fan. He saw me on American television, and approached me appreciating what I did. He didn't treat me like an unknown, trying to tell me what he thought was best for me. Instead he met me as somebody established, and so it was like he instilled me with lots of faith and belief in myself, that I was good at what I did! Because he appreciated what I did, he encouraged me to bring out the best in myself".

"I don't know what it is that people find appealing about me, I just do what I do, and that's the end of that!" - Duffy puzzles over the secret of her success

Her thinly veiled implication is that self belief was an issue between the albums, something she readily talks about. "I honestly don't know if I'm good at what I do! If I was a little self indulgent, wouldn't that mean I was overconfident, a little arrogant if I thought I was great at what I did? I don't know what it is that people find appealing about me, I just do what I do, and that's the end of that!"

Such talk is a little unexpected, but Duffy contradicts the notion with her own question. "Does it make me a superstar? I wanna be a superstar, but I can't if I keep dragging my feet like this! With my feet so firmly on the ground, people keep asking me why I seem so vulnerable, and why I'm the girl next door, why I haven't changed. But do you know what, I wish I had changed. Wouldn't it be cool if you were talking to a star?"

With the interview already turned on its head, she elaborates still further. "I don't want to be the normal one, where everyone goes 'bless her', you know? I hate being 'bless me'! You always want what you can't have, I guess. I want lovely, chocolate coloured skin, and long legs. I want to be outrageously, confidently garish, and I wish I exploited all my fame and fortune, but I just can't! They don't belong to me."

Maybe that will come in time? "Hey, watch me!" she says with mock bravado. "I'll go on the tanning machine, and get leg extensions. Wait for it!" The contradiction is all the more pronounced, given her assured appearances on TV to promote Endlessly. "Thanks," she says, laughing. "I fooled you!"

"I'm quite private about what I do, so I'm ready to express myself when it comes to making a record" - Duffy on how she channels her emotions in to her music

For her second album Duffy worked with The Roots in sessions she describes as "a dream long fulfilled. I know some people who read this might not know who they are, and they'll be just like a rhythm section, but if you know The Roots you will know just how cool this is. I love them and they are so cool. They're from New York and they're a hip hop band, I'm from Wales and I'm 5'2" and blonde! I come from a small town. How I got into the studio with The Roots is one of the finest hoodwinks of my life. But they respected me, and I didn't feel out of my depth, even though Albert knows more about hip hop than me, and he's 40 years older!"

In between albums, she also made her film debut in Patagonia. "I thought it was a great experience, and I got to exist as someone else for three days. I played a young girl called Sissy, which was a bit of a homage from my past to be honest, playing a misfit from Wales." Her favourite film is Cinema Paradiso. "I think it's cool to disappear into something, but it's cool to lose yourself for a moment. I remember once I met this huge Hollywood actor" - she won't say who - "and I went up to him. I was convinced we had been out on a date, I would have put my money on it, but I realised it was something I'd seen in a film. The conversation went nowhere after that!"

She has of course sung for Hollywood personalities, and talks of the surreal experience of singing to Morgan Freeman. But what's her ideal performance venue? "The shower!" She laughs. "It's where I can sing anything I like, and I have that every day. I'm quite private about what I do, so I'm ready to express myself when it comes to making a record. I'm ready to open up when it comes to making music, because I spend a lot of time reflecting."

So her music continues to draw from personal experience? "Yeah, all of it is interlinked and interweaved to past, present and future. What you say part of who you are. You have to be emotionally engaged and ready to be open and honest. And to get real!"

Duffy's second album, Endlessly, is out on November 29 through A&M, featuring the single Well, Well, Well. More from the world of Duffy can be found at her website.


Well, Well, Well!

the portastylistic

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