Two years ago, no one would have ever thought that a female British soul singer with retro stylings would ever break ground in the American market, with the somewhat odd exception of Joss Stone. Two years, two million album sales and one helluva hot mess later, Amy Winehouse proved all the doubters wrong. Once Amy’s Back to Black hit, the floodgates opened and a slew of Brit female singers started making waves on these shores. There’s the jazzy flavor of Adele, the more hip-hop styled vibe of Estelle, and the young Welsh singer we know as Duffy, whose album Rockferry is the most similar to Amy’s smash breakthrough. Musically, the albums both sound like they could have been recorded in 1966, using live instrumentation and featuring girl-group harmonies and sweet melodies. You could play both albums right after Dusty in Memphis and there’ll be some kind of continuity. That, however, is where the comparison ends.

Back to Black had a very tangible feeling of foreboding and sadness. There was a lived-in quality to Winehouse’s voice, a sense that she was living the pain of the lyrics she was singing. Duffy sounds a lot more green and chirpy. Not that it’s a bad thing. Taken for what it is, Rockferry is an admittedly decent album. However, in light of the massive rocking of my world that took place with the introduction of Amy Winehouse, Duffy sounds like a pale imitation, or as I said in an article on a friend’s blog, Duffy sounds like Amy Winehouse with the soul sucked out.

Not that Rockferry‘s a bad album. The production (somewhat improbably provided by Bernard Butler of 90s Britpop band Suede) is impeccable. Butler does a fantastic job recreating the sound of the early Motown/Phil Spector era (with a brief foray into 70s Philly soul on Delayed Devotion). It’s always nice to hear an album without a synthesizer, drum machine or sample on it, although I think the sound would have been truer to its’ influences had it been dirtied up a bit.

Duffy’s a decent vocalist, although, again, she sounds like Wino’s naive (and nasal) younger sister. Tunes like the aforementioned Delayed Devotion and the relatively modern-sounding Serious have lyrics that are meant to portray indecision or heartbreak, but Duffy doesn’t put any oomph or soul into the lyrics.They’re sung prettily,but whereas Winehouse would have given the song a palpable emotional heft, Duffy, like Joss Stone and several others before her, seems too young and inexperienced to pull off songs that require a few more lessons in heartbreak.

Sorry to keep bringing up Winehouse, but it’s fairly obvious that Duffy’s first single Mercy was designed to sound like Amy’s breakthrough Rehab, down to the girl-group vibe. The only surface difference between the two is that Amy’s singing “no, no, no” while Duffy’s singing “yeah, yeah, yeah”. Obviously those things like emotional heft that I discussed in the last paragraph come into play and make the two songs much more different than the untrained ear would hear on first listen.

On a whole, though, Rockferry is a prettier album. Syrup & Honey has a beautiful arrangement comprised of simply guitar and strings, which makes up for the fact that Duffy’s voice is a little more grating than usual without more instrumentation to cover it up. The album’s title track has an eerie choral background arrangement to elevate it above the mundane, and Duffy does her best singing here. Actually, this album’s MVP award would have to go to the guys and girls who play the orchestral instruments here-the string arrangements are sick, especially on songs like the gently propulsive Hanging On Too Long, which is more than a little reminiscent of the Marvin Gaye classic I Heard it Through the Grapevine.

The rumor mill has said something to the effect of Duffy not hearing any of the classic albums that this album recreates the sound of until very recently, and I totally buy that. Rockferry sounds like a tribute album, almost. Or like she’s studied the technique of singers like Ronnie Spector and Mary Wells without actually absorbing any of the soul that these ladies’ records had. Ultimately, Duffy, your Rockferry is OK…but it’s no Back To Black.