Who will be this year’s Amy Winehouse?
Nobody, that’s who. Smoky-voiced, beehive-hairdo’d, tabloid train-wreck retro-R&B singers who write powerfully revealing, instantly grabby songs - and grab Grammys by the fistful - don’t wander onto the pop culture landscape in their bra and short-shorts every day. That type of entertainment value is not easily duplicated.
But that won’t stop a star-seeking music industry from trying. That’s why there’s a trio of mono-monikered British invaders all in the running to be this year’s old-school soul siren, albeit without the bleeding mascara and sailor tattoos.
There’s Duffy, the Welsh soul-pop singer whose debut album, “Rockferry,” which came out in the States Tuesday, topped the British charts this spring. And Estelle, the John Legend protege with Senegalese and West Indian roots, whose singing and rapping skills have brought comparisons to Lauryn Hill. Estelle’s song “American Boy” elbowed aside Duffy’s “Mercy” when it hit No. 1 in March on the U.K. singles chart.
And then there’s Adele, who possesses the biggest voice of the trio. Like Winehouse and MySpace sensations Lily Allen and Kate Nash, Adele is a graduate of the London performing arts high school BRIT, which is supported by the British recording industry. Her debut, “19,” which includes a cover of Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love,” also topped the U.K. charts this year.
Without question, there’s a soul music contagion being passed around. As the Roots’ drummer and DJ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, who produced a remix of Duffy’s “Mercy,” put it: “Everybody’s got Winehouse fever.”
The first words heard on the lead single from Aimee Anne Duffy’s debut album let on that her world view is quite the opposite from that of the other Amy. Instead of the stubborn refusal to go to “Rehab” - “No, no, no!” - Duffy lets out an exultation on the organ-pumping, finger-snapping “Mercy”: “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”
Like Winehouse, Duffy - who was a contestant, in 2003, on a Welsh television talent show called “Wawffactor” - is enamored of Motown and 1960s girl-group soul. And she, too, sports a vintage `do, giving her a Bridget Bardot look that fits in with her tendency to dress like a flight attendant who might pop up in a Dean Martin Matt Helm movie.
“Rockferry” (Island, 3 stars), which was produced by Bernard Butler of the British band Suede, is a tight, catchy endeavor that occasionally evokes Dusty Springfield and everywhere showcases the 23-year-old Duffy’s pleasing, blue-eyed soulstress vocals.
When compared with Winehouse’s tortured “Back to Black,” “Rockferry” is a sane, easy-going record from a self-possessed singer who radiates composure. Duffy doesn’t flinch from heartache, but walks away with her head held high on the string-sweetened “Warwick Avenue,” pleads for devotion on the bluesy “Syrup & Honey,” and stands up for her own dignity on “Stepping Stone.” “Rockferry” succeeds as a collection of pop-soul singles that would sound right at home on a `60s AM radio station, but never successfully conveys a sense of who Duffy is.
Fanta Estelle Swaray, 28, distinguishes herself from her black-music-loving competition in a number of ways. First of all, she’s black, a fact that the West Londoner pointed out in an interview with the British newspaper the Guardian this year, when she decried the music industry’s “blindness to black talent.” She said of one of her competitors: “Adele ain’t soul. She sounds like she heard some Aretha records once.”
Secondly, on “Shine” (Atlantic, 3 stars), her music has more of a contemporary bent than her rivals, moving from the creamy soul groove of “More Than Friends” to the lovers-rock reggae of “Magnificent” to the Wyclef Jean hip-hop duet “So Much Out the Way.” “Shine” arrives with the imprimatur not only of Legend, who signed her to his HomeSchool label, but also Kanye West. West plays her boyfriend, as an electro-beat bounces, on the breezy “American Boy,” in which Estelle admits to a crush on a U.S. male despite reservations about his baggy jeans.
Her facility as both a singer and rapper make comparison to former Fugee Lauryn Hill inevitable, though at this point in her career they’re not quite deserved. “Shine” is a consistently engaging and ingratiating serving of hip-hop soul - and you’ve got to love the sample of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” that starts the album. But there’s nothing nearly so profound here as on the 1998 classic “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.”
Adele Laurie Blue Atkins is the least pop and the most gently jazzy of the new Amys. On “19,” which was released before she turned 20 last week, you can hear the strings squeak when she changes chords on her acoustic guitar. She’s also potentially the least marketable as a come-hither pop siren. “I’d rather weigh five tons and make an incredible album than look like Nicole Richie and make a (terrible) one,” she told the London Telegraph this year.
“19” (Columbia, 2 ½ stars) is not that incredible album, though it does display a formidable voice from an undeniable talent. Like her fellow BRIT graduate Nash, however - and unlike Winehouse and Allen - Adele’s music at this early stage is mannered, and falls short of announcing itself in a compellingly original voice. There’s no shame in saying that the best song on your debut album was written by Bob Dylan, even if, in “Make You Feel My Love,” it’s one of the Bard’s weaker, more saccharine efforts. But “19’s” cover version, which the piano-playing Adele handles with impressive and expressive restraint, only serves to point up the shortcomings of her own songs.