CYNDI LAUPER REVIEWS:
She's So Unusual (1983)
She's So Unusual (1983)
Album Score: 10
No discussion of '80s pop music can ever be complete unless the phenomenon of Cyndi Lauper is brought up. I want to call Lauper a phenomenon because she was not just a very popular figure of the early '80s, but for some unexplained reason she continues to be a household name to this day. Even I was aware of Cyndi Lauper during my teen years in the late '90s when I professed to hating rock music altogether. So, the cultural impact Lauper had is significant if not staggering. Furthermore, the only reason Lauper is famous is because of this album. None of her subsequent releases has any songs that even approach such monster '80s pop staples as "Time After Time," "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and "All Through the Night."
Looking at this album, it's not a great work of art; it's just another inconsequential addition to the pop music of the early '80s. It's definitely above average for the genre, but she nor her producers or songwriters strive to make any grand statements. Perhaps the biggest reason for Lauper's status is her funny fashion sense ... often putting together a mixture of random articles of clothing. (Just look at that outfit on the album cover ... not to mention the funny pose.) She's also well regarded for her four-octave voice, although she's not singing too nicely on this album. She sings almost exclusively in her cartoony, baby-girly voice with the combined stylings of Bryan Ferry and Elvis Presley. There's nothing wrong with that of course, but there are a few times when her vocals are annoying. But she's trying at least, and she does have much more style than other singers from the era such as Laura Branigan or *ahem* Madonna.
Like any pop album, the most worthwhile moments are the big hits, and the supporting material is usually filler. Though I think using the term 'filler' for this album is going too far. At least I get the sense that the producers were trying to create some formidable songs with developed arrangements even though the original melody might not have been catchy whatsoever. Although I will definitely point out that the non-hit "Money Changes Everything" is a thunderous opener and there are enough merits to the straight-ahead pop song "When You Were Mine" and the Orwellian synth-pop "She Bop." It's the final four songs of the album that comprise of the weakest bits. "Witness" is a bland take-off on reggae and "Yeah Yeah Yeah" is so ridiculous that you think that Lauper was joking. Well, maybe she was joking! After all, she's so unusual... Whether that's the case, it definitely doesn't make the songs any more enjoyable.
Anyway, let's just be happy that this is a formidable album. I'll never concede to Lauper's legion of fans that this is one of the best pop albums of the '80s, but it's certainly above average. Furthermore, its historical notoriety is undeniable.
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True Colors (1986)
Album Score: 6
As expected, nothing Lauper could ever do would match the commercial invincibility of She's So Unusual. Sophomore-itis wasn't enough to explain that; she just didn't have another album like that inside of her. Now, I'm afraid that I was never able to go bonkers over She's So Unusual, so I can't do much else but give this follow-up a panning. I'll at least be polite about it, because I realize there are many very sensitive Cyndi Lauper fans out there, and I don't want to kick them in the stomach while they're down. So, I'll be a polite jerk.
With True Colors, Lauper was experimenting with the "Uphill Theory." That is, she opens the album with two of the most excessive, crappiest '80s pop songs ever unleashed upon mankind. This makes the mediocre songs to follow sound like pop gold in comparison. Well it almost works. When I listen to this album casually, I get a bit of a high whenever I get to "Boy Blue" even though it's otherwise a typical and forgettable pop song. Likewise, the title track, a decidedly tasteful yawnfest, seems like a masterstroke in comparison. She ends up closing the album with the two best songs --- an "Addicted to Love" clone called "911" and then a bland though atmospheric '80s thing called "One Track Mind." These songs are not-special whatsoever, and they are the equivalent of the filler from Thriller, but --- well you are kind of forced to appreciate those.
Anyway, Lauper should know that she can't use science to cover up the fact that she's not able write a good song! Perhaps the worst fact about True Colors is that she completely lost the quirkiness and carefree fun of that debut. I almost don't think these two albums were by the same artist except the singer definitely sounds the same. The production on True Colors is nowhere near as vibrant or creative --- this is a much colder release that exclusively adheres to bland '80s production standards. So, who needs this album? The most well regarded hit here is easily the title track, but I usually just take a couple doses of Nyquil if I'm having trouble sleeping. That saves me the trouble of wasting electricity.
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A Night to Remember (1989)
Album Score: 7
I used to hate this album like I hate world poverty, but world poverty has gotten so horrible within the past few years that this album's status has increased considerably........ Well, it's a slight improvement over True Colors anyway. I used to think this was the devil's poop-pit compared to True Colors.
The one main development here is the more varied song production that was absent without leave in the previous album. Although still consider this a major step down from the quirky production standards of She's So Unusual. "I Drove All Night" has a nice string sound to open the festivities, there's some xylophone on "Primitive" and even some sitar on "A Night to Remember." Unfortunately, these production improvements don't necessary create better songs. For the most part, they're pretty stale and uninteresting. At least I can say that they're not so worthy of my endless wrath...
At least Lauper orders this album correctly. The first two songs are the best ones. There, now it's not so awkward, and be sure to feel free to turn off the album after they're done playing, and it'll save you the trouble of listening to anything else! Unfortunately there's not a decent number of highlights in the middle. "Unconditional Love" is an OK but faceless ballad. "A Night to Remember" is sort of likeable except it's quite sterile... Is this the best she has to offer other than the two opening tracks? Geez, Lauper's just not delivering the goods. Now let's talk about the considerable number of bombs.
I don't even know what "Like a Cat" is supposed to be doing. Everything about it is clunky and awkward. I'm not sure if Lauper thought she was being experimental or clueless. "Dancing With a Stranger" is nothing but a Paula Abdul clone... C'mon! We don't want Cyndi Lauper to be Paula Abdul! We want her to be Cyndi Lauper!! I could go on, but I think you get the picture... And there's also track reviews...
I wish I could have kinder words to say about this release, because there was at least some attempt to make this more interesting than the average '80s album. Despite the effort, Lauper forgot about what's most important in pop music: melody.
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Hat Full of Stars (1993)
Album Score: 7
Cyndi Lauper was trying her hardest to craft an "intelligent" image for herself. She was probably more aware than anyone else that it had been 10 years since her heyday, and she couldn't get another massive pop hit to save her life. So, if she would work on that smart pop girl image leftover from Madonna's Like a Prayer, then maybe she would get some critical acclaim! According to her fans, Hat Full of Stars was a massive critical success and it showed a new, personable side to Lauper.
The production is no so much quirky this time, but it's more tasteful. Fortunately, Lauper found time to make it even more varied and developed than even She's So Unusual was. Unfortunately, she's still having an awfully difficult time writing decent melodies. And that is the primary shortfall of the album. Lauper fans like to argue that melodies aren't the most imporant part of a pop song ---- but they're dead wrong. What's the point of listening to the song if it has a bland theme? OK, she has a voice.
I'll tell you that my favorite work of the album is "Someone Like Me." A curious track that begins like a Tori Amos ballad, and there's a Madonna-esque dance-pop song in the middle. Also vying for that position is the rhythmic and finely textured "Lies." I'm also a minor fan of the happy urban-pop tune "Like I Used To."
Maybe to prove that Lauper really didn't know which songs of hers was good or not, she opens and closes the album with two of the worst songs. "That's What I Think" is an awfully confused song with a dead-dull groove. The closing track is the album's namesake, and it's so bland that it bores me to tears. The most obnoxious song of the album is unquestionably the attempted marriage between '90s diva-pop and 20s folk with "Feels Like Christmas." That was an interesting idea, but I think you can imagine why that didn't work.
It's such a shame these Lauper albums aren't turning out to be very good, because it's clear that she's trying. Unfortunately, Lauper was only blessed with singing talent and not songwriting talent... But I'll give her that she did a few nice things in the studio! The production is much better than Madonna's 1992 album Erotica.
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Sisters of Avalon (1997)
Album Score: 8
Here is a nice album! Sure it's still kinda crappy, but I can say with a strong degree of conviction that this is Lauper's most convincing artistic statement of her career. It's not her best album only because She's So Unusual had overall better songs on it, but I'm going to have to say that Sisters of Avalon comes pretty close in beating that one in sheer quality. Of course, considering I wasn't too ape-crazy about She's So Unusual, it's no big shocker that I'm also not ape-crazy about this. But there are several aspects about this album that I admire. Well, there are two aspects: They're the production and the diversity.
Lucky us that Lauper decided to follow-up the well-produced Hat Full of Stars with an album that's even better produced. Even if the songs themselves aren't that well written, at least they sound nice. It comes off as polished pieces of nothing, but at least that's better than non-polished pieces of nothing that smell like sewage. The diversity of Sisters of Avalon is easily the most intriguing aspect of this experience, and I'd even say it's staggering. There's everything covered here from funk, techno, blues, folk, shoegazing, grunge, trance and ska. (I think I named everything.) Sure, she might be much better at techno than grunge, but it's fun to hear her at least try it. Well, the grunge was a serious misstep because she actually tries to twist her voice to make it sound grungey, which was just a horrible idea...
That leads me to discuss the album's primary pit-fall that I already touched upon. The songwriting comes up woefully SHORT. That's no big surprise, because it's been firmly established by now that she isn't much of a songwriter. But the good news is that the songwriting is still better than usual, and this album does have, in my opinion, the best song of Lauper's career. I probably don't need to make anymore "controversial" statements, but there I go! It's "Ballad of Cleo & Joe." It's not really a ballad, but a techno with a great forward drive and extremely creative production standards. Likewise, the opening track is quite excellent and ranks as one of Lauper's career best.
Some of the other material has merits and other material has very little if no merit. I'll let you sort that out for yourself in the track reviews! Beware that this is an extremely inconsistent album!! I don't recommend this to anyone other than her crazy fans, but non-fans might still be interested in checking out those two songs I mentioned, because they are rather interesting.
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At Last (2003)
Album Score: 7
Cyndi Lauper puts her name on the roster along with Michael Crawford and Barry Manilow as a semi-washed up singer willing to make cheap covers of popular songs for a quick buck. These albums are then strategically planted in supermarkets to be purchased by housewives who don't really care about music. You know these sorts of albums: Barry Manilow Sings the Greatest Songs of the Seventies. Yeah. Puke.
But to Lauper's credit, there was an attempt to be tasteful here. I misguided attempt, but an earnest one. The instrumentation tends to be minimalist to produce a pseudo artsy atmosphere, and Lauper does her best to strut her chops as much as possible. Well, all of that is just fine and dandy if you're into that sort of thing, but I rarely run across an album I'm this bored with. I would respect this museum-boring theme if it was only consistent. Right out of the blue, it seems, they come out with stuff like “Stay” and “Looking on the Sunny Side of Life” that couldn't possibly be more instrumentally involved and annoying.
Lauper fans undoubtedly appreciate that this is really the first time she had a chance to fully reveal her singing abilities. The sort of music she used to sing only required a cutesy bubblegum voice or half-singing to disco grooves. Here, she's singing the same tunes the great, serious jazz singers used to. Well, sure she's impressive! I'm not going to downplay her singing abilities on iota! She can belt it out as good as anyone ... who appeared on American Idol. Unfortunately, I'm not the type of listener who listens to music because I want to hear the singers show off. I'd like a little musical quality! That is where At Last falls terribly short.
Despite what I said there, I will say I like hearing the album opener, “At Last,” which perhaps the most impressive showcase for Lauper's voice on this whole disc. They should've tried picking a song we haven't heard before, but Lauper's soulful voice is going all over the place and comes off well. I'm surprised that I enjoyed “Unchained Melody” as much as I did considering their instrumentation isn't much to speak of, and I never cared for that song to begin with. But all the elements seemed to be well in place. “If You Go Away,” a Jacques Brel cover, marks one of the few inspired song choices on the album. I sure don't care for the arrangements, though! Whoever was in charge of them needs a good kick in the pants!
The best track of the album has got to be the Stevie Wonder cover, “Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do).” This was also a good choice for a cover considering the original song isn't very well-known. The melody is poppy and the instrumentation treats it as such. That is precisely what they should have done with songs like Burt Bacharach's “Walk on By,” Edith Piaf's “La Vie En Rose” and Smokey Robinson's “You Got a Hold on Me.” But they decided to drop the ball and give those inappropriate, pseudo-arsty renditions with the expressed purpose of boring me to sweet death.
This album is only for Cyndi Lauper purists who worship her voice and don't care so much about music. Of course, these people aren't humans, and they don't deserve to be sharing the planet with me. (Maybe that's going a bit too far, but I figure that Lauper fans are going to crucify me no matter what I write, so I'd might as well go to town! Take that!!!)
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The Body Acoustic (2005)
Album Score: 7
I suppose the idea of Cyndi Lauper making an acoustic album of her old '80s radio hits was a neat idea. Those time-tested pop songs were so heavily reliant on synthesizers and Lauper's cutesy bubble-gum voice yet so melodic that hearing her do more “serious” interpretations of those might have been an interesting exercise. ................................But no, she screwed it up. Saying that the originals are overwhelmingly better isn't enough. I can't even believe she could treat some of these songs like this!
Look at my favorite Cyndi Lauper song of all time, “All Through the Night.” That song has such a great melody (the merits of which forced me to give the song a B+ rating in the track reviews), but what the heck is that rapper doing there? He sounds like some demented Calypso televangelist who sneaked into the recording studio and started speaking in tongues. They had a tight schedule and couldn't afford to do another take... Of course, that's not what happened; this was actually intentional, and no effort was made to make him actually fit in the song to the point he's actually contributing something. Geez... ever since 1986, Lauper badly needed somebody to tell her with blunt sincerity every time she had a horrible idea. If this person was me, I would tell her that all she needed to do was sing well with the pretty song. We demand nothing else.
Another source of pain comes from Sarah McLachlan, of all people. They make some sort of “attempt” to duet with “Time After Time,” but it's not so much a duet as the two completely different singers giving their own separate interpretations at the same time. “She Bop” is actually boring as Lauper turns it into faux-blues. The original wasn't her most impressive moment (unless artists who've gotten suggestive songs past the censors impresses you) and the melody wasn't very good ... and this retread is even worse. The fifth and final stripped-down song from She's So Unusual is of course going to be the big hit, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” That's easily the worst assault of them all... unless you wanted to hear Lauper put it to a cheesy ska song with some of the ugliest back-up singers I ever heard. Obviously they were meant to mimic Lauper's former girlie bubble-gum vocal style, but they come off as mentally unstable hospital patients. Also a bad idea was to have them actually talking through much of the song? ... Who the hell approved this stuff?
Only three songs represented from other Lauper albums. Two from Sisters of Avalon and one from True Colors. Not exactly an even distribution, but I suppose the fewer things from those albums, the better. And, I'm right, because those three tracks represent some of the album's most tedious moments.
There are also four songs that don't appear on Lauper's regular discography. (At least the mainstream one that's being sold in America.) Some are boring ... others are pretty good. A pretty good one is “I'll Be Your River.” It's a ballad with a touch of blues that's more or less played straight. That's exactly what they should have done with the other songs. The melody is good and so is Lauper's performance, which proves that she hadn't lost an ounce of that power. Even better than that is “Shine” whose melody piques my interest. Lauper's vocals are also very powerful there ... but in that instance, she would've been better off toning those down. They're just too loud, and I don't get the full effect of the instrumentation. This is an “acoustic” album, so she doesn't have to sing like that so much. “Above the Clouds” is a new one, and it's notable because it features Jeff Beck on electric guitar (which is interesting because this album is ACOUSTIC.) ... Unfortunately, that's just a typical adult-contemporary ballad and it's BORING. “Water's Edge” is an OK mid-tempo piece and McLachlan sounds better there, because she takes second fiddle to Lauper and attempts to add some texture (Well, the textures aren't that appealing, but that's just a minor point). I have only one crippling complaint: It's just not interesting.
I suppose Lauper fans bought this album the day it came out, so I'm not recommending this to anyone. There are so many bad ideas for these reinterpretations of her classics that there's no compelling reason for you to hear this. Some of the new songs are OK, but you can go to your grave quite happily without ever hearing them.
Read the track reviews:
Bring Ya to the Brink (2008)
Album Score: 3
When I heard that Cyndi Laaapurrrrr was coming out with a new album with original material, I was so crazily excited that I went to the bathroom!!!! Granted, going to the bathroom isn't anything unusual for me. I go to the bathroom all the time. Indeed, I suspect it's a good thing I don't wait for her to release albums before I go to the bathroom, because I wouldn't have gone since 1997 (and I would have been quite miffed at her for releasing a secret album in 2004 that's not available in the U.S. for some reason). Anyway, this is a new Cyndi Lauper album, and there's original material on it! Hooray! ... So, what do I think of it? ... I think it stinks! It's almost as bad as that one Madonna album that my imaginary therapist told me I should stop thinking about. Yeah. That bad. There are many ways to kill yourself, and listening to Bring Ya To the Brink is a way to do that. But I wouldn't recommend it. It'll be a slow and very painful death, believe me. There are much more efficient ways of doing it. Myself, I'm working on a method to suffocate myself with a bagpipe. Unfortunately, it's not going too well, so I'll have to stick with Bring Ya to the Brink.
I'm really surprised I'm saying this, but her back catalogue was an endless string of masterpieces compared to this. This album starts with one of the most offensive songs of her career, “High and Mighty.” The songwriters apparently knew very little about writing songs, because there are only four very simple chords that repeat ENDLESSLY. A song having merely four chords in itself isn't a great crime. After all, bands like T. Rex and the Ramones often got away with less than that. The problem comes in with the fact these chosen chords are annoying to hear endlessly. Making it much worse is the utterly terrible song production. The canned drum machine beat is paper-thin and woefully uninvolved. The synthesizers they use to keep the groove are droning and annoying, sounding more like malfunctioning machinery than music. It was like they were purposefully trying to annoy me. They were probably getting payback because I didn't like her earlier albums. (Yeah, I'm taking this personally.)
But when it's all said and done, “High and Mighty” was relatively tolerable. It's songs like “Rocking Chair” that shows Cyndi Lauper's utter contempt for her audience. That song only has two chords that repeat endlessly throughout. The song producers do random things to change the instrumentation as though they thought doing so would make the song interesting. But that never works. A two-chord song is a two-chord song. In fact, those filly things they do just make it worse. The most offensive travesty comes in the final third when Lauper goes off on this squeaky scat-singing tangent. Holy crap, she's never sounded that embarrassed.
“Same Ol' Story” might not be one of the album's travesties; I'm bringing it up only because that's the only reason some versions this album came with that 'Explicit' tag on it. Yeah, there's some swears in it. (Instead of “Same Ol' Story,” it's “Same Ol' ******* Story.”) That was completely unnecessary if you ask me, and it makes me seriously think the only reason for that was to get this label, which would give one the impression that the album would be edgy. But the only edge it gave me was a sharpened bowie knife into my abdomen that I put there! But as I said, that song isn't one of the album's main travesties. “Lay Me Down,” on the other hand, is such a mind-numbingly dull song with a stupid riff that repeats endlessly and (icing on the cake) its stale drum machine and sterile instrumentation is so boring that it had me wishing I was laid down in my own coffin. “Give it Up” is so stupid that I wish Lauper would take its message to heart and give up cutting albums. Seriously. The last time she's made a good one was in 1983, and that one wasn't really so great. “Lyfe” is such a massive hunk of crap that I can't think of anything clever to say about it. God, I hate my life when I'm reviewing Cyndi Lauper albums. Why do I torture myself so?
That said, there is one point in Bring Ya to the Brink where I can detect sunlight shining through the leaves. I have to squint a bit, but it's assuredly there. It's the distinctively retro “Grab a Hold” that comes fully equipped with pop-hooks, a chorus, synth-pop instrumentation, and a vocal performance that packs an actual punch. Yeah! This album is so loaded with bland-as-hell vocals that it's refreshing to hear Lauper sing as heartily as she did in the '80s. Wow. That song is so adequate that I can hardly contain myself. But that's the only one. As a whole, this album is garbage. It's easily one of the very worst that I have ever reviewed. If you value your life, you will stay away from it. Even if you don't value your life, I wouldn't recommend it. As I said, there are more efficient ways of killing yourself.
Read the track reviews:
Memphis Blues (2010)
Album Score: 12
It seems kind of weird that I would say this considering that I (very deservedly) have a reputation for under-appreciating the blues, but... here it goes... What a great idea Cyndi Lauper had making a blues album! I mean, who knew she could be so enjoyable singing the blues? OK, maybe a lot of people figured that, but considering she's best known for that cutesy, Betty Boop voice on She's So Unusual, then perhaps that wasn't so intuitive to me. And no, this doesn't mean I've finally come to the dark side: Nine times out of 10, I'm going to prefer a generic pop tune to a generic blues tune. However, Lauper here seems to have created some sort of an enigma. Apart from a few choice selections on She's So Unusual, I haven't really fallen too enamored with her pop songs. But then when I hear an album full of blues covers she released in 2010, I enjoy the crazy out of it.
Although, when I tell you what Lauper did here, you'll probably be quick to realize that this album couldn't possibly be bad. Instead of attempting to write the songs herself or hiring a boring songwriting team, she sings a bunch of tried-and-true classics and invites a few seasoned blues heavyweights to help her out. These superstars are as follows: Charlie Musselwhite, Allen Toussaint, B.B. King, Johnny Lang, and Ann Peebles. Furthermore, it doesn't seem like she gathered these people just for their technical abilities; she genuinely seems like she loves singing with them, and they do so back. That's why this album works. If I can tell musicians had fun creating an album, then I'm going to have fun listening to it. That's rock music's equivalent of Newton's Third Law of Motion.
But even with all the guests, there's no question of the matter that Lauper was the star of this whole project. This might go to further prove that I am not really a blues fan, but I really like hearing her interpretations of all of these songs. I'm sure she's not as technically proficient or as authentic sounding as Aretha Franklin was at her best, but Lauper's gotta be in that same league. What strikes me about her is that she doesn't restrain herself from doing anything fancy with her voice, but she also never, ever let's it get too carried away. The result is every track here POPS out at me.
I like every song here, and it's difficult for me to distinguish which one I liked the best. I suppose “Early in the Mornin'” is something of a standout if the only reason for that is it features her duet with B.B. King. Of course King doesn't dare outshine Lauper's very saucy vocal performance throughout; all he does is let a few simple lyrics bellow out in the background. Another bit that I find endearing about the song is at the end when Lauper and King sound like they're improvising a little bit, and they really have a lot of chemistry together. It all ends with the two chuckling.
There are a number of songs that don't feature special guest musicians at all, and they're also quite phenomenal. Hearing Lauper belt it out through the beautiful soul-ballad “Romance in the Dark,” for instance, wows the socks off of me. The instrumentation consisting of the standard electric guitars, drums, an electric organ, and a full horn section that wallows quietly in the background is very nicely put together, and they can hardly overpower Lauper when she hits those big notes. And holy crap, does she hit those big notes!
I feel like such a loser that I haven't ever really listened to some of these special guest stars before. Charlie Musselwhite guests on two of these songs, and he plays a mean harmonica. You might not even like the harmonica, but I don't see how you can have blood pumping through your body if you don't like hearing him play on this album. Ann Peebles has a really good blues voice, and I've never even heard of her before. Why haven't I? Johnny Lang plays on a few tracks. I don't feel too bad for never having heard of him, because he's only 30. Except he sounds like he's 60. Allen Toussaint guests the most on this album, and he plays the keyboards in a verrry dazzling manner.
Am I going to be in a world of hurt for calling this the best Cyndi Lauper album by a mile? Well for sure it will never have the same cultural impact as She's So Unusual or True Colors. However, chalk this one up as the most consistently enjoyable album of her career. It was a simple idea, but Lauper gathered the right musicians for it, the album was produced well, and she definitely had the chops for it.
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