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Album review: Duffy's 'Endlessly'

December 7, 2010 |  6:00 am

DUFFY_ENDLESSLY_240_ The young Welsh song belter who calls herself Duffy is certainly bored with being compared to her damaged stylistic older sister, Amy Winehouse, and her spitting-image spiritual mom, Dusty Springfield. So here’s a new one: Johnny Mathis. Like romantic pop’s velvet balladeer, Duffy has a vocal tone like meringue, delicious to some and cloying to others. And like Mathis, she’s an individualist hiding within a musical subgenre that favors convention.

On “Endlessly,” her follow-up to her worldwide hit debut “Rockferry,” Duffy tries several different ways to celebrate her unique talents without abandoning the vintage settings that won her such acclaim. She parted with her retro-soul guru, the 40-year-old post-punk Bernard Butler, to collaborate with the 66-year-old veteran producer Albert Hammond, who had most of his hits (huge ones, like the Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe”) in the 1970s.

True to that era’s freewheeling attitude, Hammond gives Duffy room to experiment, and the results are, not surprisingly, mixed. The lead single, “Well Well Well,” is a reggae-tinged rocker with the Roots laying down the groove; it could easily fit on Neneh Cherry’s 1989 classic “Raw Like Sushi.” Other tracks invoke Kylie Minogue — the Aussie goddess might be tempted to cover the dance-pop show tune “Lovestruck.” Duffy also returns to "Rockferry’s" Northern soul on the epic tearjerker “Too Hurt Tto Dance,” which joins the honor roll of songs about how listening to music can make things worse.

Despite these high points, though, “Endlessly” has some problems. Duffy has said she wrote the songs in a mere three weeks, and it shows. There’s nothing wrong with a well-deployed cliché, but on some songs here Duffy either just doesn’t do much with the language (her lover’s taking her breath away, neat!) or bungles it (“You hit me like lightning through the eyes”? Ouch!). And though it must have been fun to rewrite Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” it hardly fulfilled a burning cultural need.

These pitfalls, along with some of the more artistically successful risks Duffy and Hammond take, mean that “Endlessly” will likely not achieve the massive success of “Rockferry.” That’s OK — to summon a cliché Duffy could use as the basis for a winning song, it’s a growing process. She did her obvious predecessors proud on “Rockferry”; now she’s working toward doing the same for herself.

— Ann Powers

Mercury Records
Three stars (out of four)