What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago major stateside record labels weren't keen on discovering a British vocalist with soulful pipes and bringing her over here to wow American audiences with her retro-R&B songs of heartache and woe.
And then came Amy.
Now, it appears labels are snapping up white girls with black-girl voices from the U.K. left and right. The two frontrunners in this stampede are North London lass Adele (who will be performing at World Cafe Live this Sunday) and Welsh girl Duffy.
With both the British and American press already quick to label both of them as "the new Amy Winehouse," they want it known they're not coming in on the successful high heels of another limey gal weaned on old R&B albums (even though that's kinda what they're doing).
Apart from the fact they're both British white chicks with one name, they do have distinctions about them. The shapely, red-headed Adele has a deep, authoritative voice, while the blonde, petite, Kristin Chenoweth-lookalike Duffy sings with a gossamer-light, undeniably girly lilt.
But it's still about being a hopeless--and helpless--romantic, as their tunes about still believing in love in these cynical times have the potential to become instant anthems for other gals lost in love. (Songs from both artists have already been used as background music fodder for those self-absorbed dames on Grey's Anatomy.)
However, Adele, with her full-figured ferocity, is also concerned about love's other side--namely, getting screwed over by it. Her album's opening track "Daydreamer" sees her singing about her ex-boyfriend who reportedly left her for another man. ("But I will find him sitting on my doorstep/ Waiting for a surprise," she sings.)
There are some autobiographical tunes on Duffy's album as well, yet Duffy's voice is always anchored by an overriding optimism. (Time magazine hit it on the head when they said Duffy "is innocent enough to believe that everything the Supremes once sang is still true.")
Duffy appears the most guilty of copying if not Winehouse's style, then the style of those '50s and '60s female singers and girl groups Winehouse has aped. Produced by ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, Rockferry is an engaging albeit obvious nod to Northern soul. The album sounds like the sort of lost Motown relic (with Duffy bringing to mind underappreciated singers like Brenda Holloway) that British folk instantly embrace.
Adele doesn't go deep in the record bins for her sound. While her voice is a throwback to big, booming sistas like Etta James, her music is more poppy and current. She pulls out her acoustic guitar (yes, she can play an instrument!) for several folksy, intimate tracks, while other elaborate numbers (one track "Cold Shoulder" is produced by Winehouse producer Mark Ronson) are primed to hit adult-contemporary radio stations any minute now.
Not to be outdone by this influx of English, blue-eyed soul, Atlantic Records is pushing its own one-named, soul-singing Brit chick. But here's the shocker: She's actually black.
Meet Estelle, now coming to American shores with debut Shine. She's also coming over quite pissed. Estelle has already ranted in the British press about Adele and Duffy being anointed as the gold standard of contemporary British soul.
You can't help but feel her pain, especially considering she's already a well established artist--releasing her gold-selling U.K. debut The 18th Day back in 2004--who still has to fight to earn a place in the spotlight alongside her alabaster-skinned colleagues. (And online reports have surfaced that Atlantic wants her to fix her teeth and get a cosmetic makeover in order to appeal to American audiences.)
But with John Legend (whose HomeSchool Records label she's signed to) and Kanye West singing her praises and appearing on her album, and will.i.am, Swizz Beatz and Mark Ronson (once again) producing tracks for her, it seems Estelle is an artist American audiences will easily take a, um, liking to.
Besides, as a gal who can coquettishly belt out a tune as well as drop a rhyme or two, it seems evident Estelle is not aspiring to be the next Amy Winehouse but the next Lauryn Hill. It's not even that much of a surprise to see Wyclef Jean on the album, producing and appearing on a track.
Estelle certainly doesn't peg herself as another pitiable, scorned woman on Shine. Unlike Adele and Duffy, who sing about becoming better women after graduating from the school of heartbreak, Estelle knew she was a better woman from jump street. Extroverted and aggressive, she practically comes out the gate declaring herself as big a playa as the boys. "Boy I'm through with you/ Get your shoes on cuz I'm using you," she raps on the opening track "Wait a Minute (Just a Touch)."
While it looks like all these ladies do bring something unique to the pop-music landscape, it makes audiences all the more hopeful that they just sing their songs and enjoy their success--and not fall off the goddamn deep end like that other chick people can't stop comparing them to.
Rusted Root's eclectic mix hits Coda