Duffy, 'Endlessly' (Mercury)

7
Endlessly
Critical Mass
Release Date: December 7, 2010
Label: Mercury

by Amanda Petrusich

For folks predisposed to sniffing out corporate trickery, Duffy's 2008 debut, Rockferry, was suspect from the start. Materializing after Amy Winehouse's very public collapse, Duffy's take on the same fuzzy American soul mined by Winehouse seemed laboratory-born and engineered for easy consumption. Cowriter Bernard Butler (formerly of Suede) was cast as Svengali and Duffy as the opportunistic vessel, a talent-show also-ran (she placed second on Wawffactor, the Welsh American Idol) in need of a marketable hook. But naysayers never acknowledged how Duffy's big, burly voice was preternaturally well-suited to moody rhythm and blues, infused with a warmth that easily evoked muggy Memphis nights. And Rockferry, despite its timing, earned Duffy a slew of perfectly legitimate comparisons to Dusty Springfield: Girl could sing.

Two years and millions of sales later, Duffyhas split amicably with Butler and her indie manager Jeannette Lee. On Endlessly, she's teamed with backing band du jour the Roots and songwriter-producer (and Strokes daddy) Albert Hammond -- who cranked out AM gold for the Hollies ("The Air That I Breathe"), Starship ("Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now"), Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias ("To All the Girls I've Loved Before"), and himself ("It Never Rains in Southern California"). These aren't predictable choices for a blue-eyed starlet from northern Wales, and Endlessly isn't a humdrum follow-up.

Unlike Rockferry, Endlessly is retro in such nonspecific ways that it can feel inscrutable -- it's looser and less deliberately stylized, and its influences are broader and more disparate (Phil Spector, Grace Jones, Darlene Love). Her collaborators' presence is still palpable (Hammond adds a helping of schmaltz; the Roots bring some sophisticated funk), but the whole enterprise feels more genuinely Duffy: innocent, unapologetically sentimental, and a little bit goofy.

Devotees of "Mercy," Rockferry's ubiquitous single, might be mildly surprised by the raucous- ness of "Well, Well, Well," a brash, horn-addled character defense bolstered by the Roots' unstoppable rhythm section. "I'm not guilty of what you're saying I do," Duffy emphatically insists. "Why you giving me the third degree?" The similarly styled "Keeping My Baby" is a canny rewrite of "Papa Don't Preach," set to a classic Studio 54-era disco arrangement loaded with panicked strings and righteous lyrics ("No hope for me, but this child, it stays alive!"). But her coquettish vocals make the track feel more like nightclub kitsch than a sobering cautionary tale.

Duffy fares better on Endlessly's soft, sweeping ballads. The piano-led "Don't Forsake Me" feels predestined for teary slow dances (in the eternal spirit of "Unchained Melody") and the title track (which recalls "At Last," and opens, somewhat tellingly, with the hiss of a needle slipping into a dusty groove) is a gentle, sepia-toned love song, old-fashioned and sweet. It's also a sturdy platform for Duffy's fragile, deliciously craggy pipes.

Ultimately, it's the vocals that carry Endlessly. There's no whitewashing of the singer's eccentricities, which feel more pronounced here -- she can be gruffly nasal (the oft-repeated chorus of "Well, Well, Well" never stops sounding like "whale, whale, whale") while remaining wholly beguiling. Endlessly becomes more convincing the sassier and more playful it gets ("It's a physical thing we got and I'm in paradise," she purrs on the spoken intro to "Lovestruck"). And Duffy sounds happier and happier the further behind she leaves that over-sprayed beehive 'do.

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