Tuff Enuff?  Here’s Duff!

January 9, 2009

She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes -- but the mountain’s in Snowdonia and her name, it aint Susannah

Greetings, Readers.

This is what we have been pondering lately, as another year’s older and a new one’s just begun:

A self-destructive English loon named Amy Winehouse accidentally strikes gold with her debut album, but likely will not be able to follow it up even without the Sophomore Jinx, because her well-publicized excesses, like those of Keith Richards or Britney Spears, will surely outshine anything she might accomplish in the studio.  What is it:  London living?  Too much success too soon?

Nah.  She is already yesterday’s sodden news. In the “There aint nothing like a dame” category, take a look-see at these examples:  are they not elegant portraits of utter vulnerability of the female kind?

Scene 1:  a young blonde, reminiscent of a sweet-natured Brigitte Bardot, if there ever was one, or La Deneuve in “Belle du Jour” if there was not, walking down a street in casual but loopy attire, drinking milk from a bottle,

Scene 2:  a young blonde, who quite possibly but unintentionally provides to the curious (us) a glimpse of the changeling Marianne Faithfull during her Jagger-fueled transition we wondered about but never got to see up close:  from the angelic blonde schoolgirl crooning “As Tears Go by” to the “Mars bar” epic to her self-penned lyric “I see her c**t in my bed” when she reappeared decades later with the oh-so- charming Broken English,

Scene 3:  a weary Dusty Springfield contemplating, facing, and finally conquering Memphis, Tennessee, just when she was about to create one of the most seminal soul records ever recorded – Dusty in Memphis, soul that needed no qualification like “blue-eyed” to earn its place in the eternal juke joint,

Or hey, how about that blonde who lost her leather-clad boyfriend to a motorcycle crash in 1964’s “Leader of the Pack”?

C’mon – add ‘em up!  Do the math with me.

What we see are portraits showing the utter and artless vulnerability of a young girl – so ephemeral that when we catch its image, we wish to keep it always:  as a cherubic keepsake of a fleeting time, a walk along the strand, a backseat melodrama, your first “dirty weekend” (a time-honoured British custom – shall I go on?   I think not.)  We recognize it, even if we weren’t girls back then because we were young lads.

Enter, Stage left:  Aimee Ann Duffy.  A/K/A Duffy.

Not a product of the American South, not about to record in Memphis anytime soon as far as we know – just a young, sweet blonde from a town of 2000 people in North Wales who exploded through the vestal virgin keyhole into a state of wanton deshabillée with –dare I say it? – a real voice.  Andy Davies, a Welsh geologist and photographer, has written about her birthplace:  “The water gleams where the sun hits it, but there’s no warmth here, the effect it creates is ethereal, otherworldly. The sea looks magnificent and powerful but far from welcoming, so you feel very glad to be safely ensconced on dry land.”  To outsiders, Wales is probably the least known and most mysterious part of the British Isles; it has just two large cities, Swansea and Cardiff, it has been known for coal since before the Aberfan mining tragedy, and its people, warm but a little austere, speak two official languages.

Open up the hiptionary to ‘sex kitten’ and there’s a picture of Duffy.  In the video of the hit “Stepping Stone,” currently programmed on VH1 Soul, she sits up and hugs herself with the bedsheets while watching her lover dress and exit stage right.  Hint:  watch his shoes. Wrapped in her linens, she starts to run it down for him but he has left so many trappings of himself around the room that he is kind of busy collecting them and getting dressed so he can exit pronto.  It seems that our little lass means what she says, but still tarts herself up later to go down to the local.  And in fact, had you been watching the shoes like I suggested, you would know just why she bashfully ignores all the steamy male glances aimed her way in the pub.

Quite an image for a 24-year old ingénue who says simply, “I’m just a girl who likes to do things with her friends. I’m somebody’s sister and daughter.”  Wales.online.co.uk, 19 November 2008.

This young lady was scooped up from her isolated childhood on fen and moor, not far from Mount Snowdon in North Wales, where her limited introduction to soul and dance music came from listening to her father’s radio and small record collection and watching the movie “Sister Act” (Jump aint ’joking here, friends:  when she appeared on the American television show “The View” recently, she was elated to be the guest of that film’s star, Ms. Whoopi Goldberg.)

It has not taken her long to sell more than 2 million copies of her debut CD ROCKFERRY (Mercury D173365) worldwide, produced by and written in collaboration with some fine Brits who knew what they were doing.  After spending the winter holidays at home in North Wales, she’s on tour in Russia and Japan in the new year.

This debut album peaked at # 4 in the States and was last seen at # 91, down for the week from #84.  However, her hot little video of “Mercy,” which she tauntingly admits is “about sex” came in #39 on VH1’s Best Videos of 2008, which also features the tragic breakout youbrokemyhearthereIamabouttodie “Warwick Avenue.” And yes, Welsh words and place names can be that long!

Grammy voters certainly felt the power.  Duffy is nominated for three Grammys this year:  Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Mercy”, Best Pop Vocal LP for Rockferry, and Best New Artist.
Born Aimee Ann Duffy, she gives us both sides now of the Marianne Faithfull coin, along with the near-unintelligibility of one Stevie Nicks (“just watch me twirl in my boots, aint I cute?”)  If you remember back when the Mac released “Dreams,” the dope was that Ms. Nicks was suffering from a cold the night they recorded her vocals.  (Real smart move, that.)  Hence, we got to hear:

Thudder ode-ly happeds wed it’s raiding
players odely love you whed they’re playing ….
Oh Wimmed they will come and they will go,
whed the Raid washes you cleed you’ll doh…. You’ll doh.

And to this day, we still do.  Oh, did I quote too many lyrics? Sorry, the high priestess of pomp and pretense always ruffles my henfeathers.  But Duffy, who epitomizes grown-up humility looking with childlike wonder at what is coming out of her own mouth, spent almost three years making her debut album ROCKFERRY.  And yes, we can understand every word she sings.  Whether it’s a dirgy, lugubrious lament like the title track that Arif, Ahmet and Jerry could just barely have improved upon, or one of her more playful numbers like “Rain on Your Parade,” what we get to see and hear is a veritable combo of 1966’s ravishing and oh-so-Brit Julie Christie, a bit of Betty Boop, and the early Cher and Tina learning their craft at Dr. Spector’s feet.  She can tear through a carefully crafted Wall of Sound, her grey-blue peepers are stunners and she’s got legs as long as Route 66.

Her first foray into London led her to Jeannette Lee of Rough Trade Management, who remains a close friend and mentor to Duffy even now.  Learning from Lee and leaning on her musicians Eg (sic) White and Bernard Butler, it took several years to come up with the cross-pollination that imbues ROCKFERRY.  Its 2008 debut was not fueled by millions spent on publicity – dare we say it was a “switchboard hit” of old?  Perhaps a little of both, but this 24-year old is not a whit impressed that wales.online.co.uk took a vote for most attractive woman and she landed in first place.  Let’s remember, she is somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister.

If it’s important, it will stick around.  If not, keep your day job.

Of all her work, including covering Madonna’s “Borderline,” the breakout hit referred to above is slaying people on four continents.

“Warwick Avenue” lifts the first few notes from the Temptations’ “My Girl” just to the point of flattery.  Where the Smokey Robinson- Ronald White hit goes “Nah nah nah nah nah nah, Nah nah nah nah nah nah, I got sunshine…” “Warwick Avenue” ends those first two riffs on a higher note.  This strong ballad, which seems poised to capture the public imagination the way Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” and the Isley’s “Shout!” did for previous generations, sports an Oscar-worthy video.  Go check it out at Iamduffy.com, kids, and meet me back here in 5, ok?

While “Mercy,” “Rain on Your Parade,” and the album’s other attempt to kick ass, “Delayed Devotion,” are campy retro sendoffs, “Warwick Avenue” is quietly tragic.  The video finds our lass sitting at the back of the bus, speaking her thoughts as she rides to what she claims will be her final meeting with her lover.  They have agreed to meet outside the Warwick Avenue tube station, where they can talk  – just “for an hour but no more than two.”  Not long into the song, Duffy starts weeping, it’s so hard for her to face, but wait!  The video shows the tube station behind the bus where she is sitting in the last row.  Could it be that these were the very words Duffy had hoped to say but never got a chance to?  The tube stop is forlorn and she’s sitting in the back of the bus, wiping her tears and mascara away.  Sure wish I knew what came first:  the plan or the meeting.  The sweetening on most tracks, written by Duffy’s versatile and hot collaborators, Bernard Butler, Jimmy Hogarth and Eg White, save them from complete austerity, but suffice it to say that someone has visited a real tragedy on the back of this bus.  Can we even imagine the brutality visited on a woman by a man that distantly approximates what tube station boy did to young Duffy?  I don’t think so. And the bridge is sufficiently impregnable as to make it even more compelling:

All the days spent together
I wished for better
But I didn’t want the train to come
Now it’s departed
I’m broken-hearted
Seems like we never started
All the days spent together
When I wished for better
And I didn’t want the train to come…

Let me wind up my meandering thought:  By the time Duffy prepares to step off that bus, we are so wrung out that we almost don’t want to know what drove her (besides the bus of course) to this point.  We can assume this:  it was bestial.  It was horrific.  And it was not the stuff of which stiff upper lips stay stiff in Great Britain.

Oh well, when I was last in North Wales, a man traveled from Liverpool to wine and dine me.  I like to think that his pithy “We’ll always have Llandudno” is a bit like Duffy saying “We’ll always have Warwick Avenue” when she gets over this yobbo in a few years.

Somewhere inside that Belair mansion Ronnie didn’t like too much, where she felt she was being held prisoner, and where today the Master prepares for his new trial, he’s got to be entertained at the flawless flattery Duffy and her musicians bestow on him by recreating a damn tough Wall of Sound in “Distant Dreamer.”  Duffy may or may not be as familiar as St. Nick(s) with the business of music, but someone looking out for her has arranged some juicy licensing deals – “Stepping Stone” is used as background music for Nivea lip products in the States as well as in trailers for at least one new detective show called “Damages”.

Well, now, isn’t it fabulous to hear these two songs and decide which one is the more tragic: “Stepping Stone” or “Warwick Avenue”?  Or which of these sufficiently lays down some law:  “Rain on Your Parade,” “Mercy” or “Delayed Devotion”?   Congrats, babe, I call it a tie.

With sincere wishes for the best year ever to all of SMN’s friends, devotees and diehards ----

Til we all sing together,


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