|Cyndi Lauper - The Body Acoustic|
|Music Disc Reviews DualDisc|
|Written by Charles Andrews|
|Tuesday, 08 November 2005|
Like mosquitoes, corrupt politicians and the dominance of the Yankees, no matter what mankind tries, Cyndi Lauper just won’t go away.
There are apparently a number of people who don’t want her to go away. They love her. They l-o-o-o-o-o-v-e her! And a couple of them aren’t even gay. But they should run a reality check on their personal image/esteem level, and throw in a medical exam for tin ear syndrome. She’s a poster girl for a number of things you’d be better off not having as issues in your life.
And then there’s – that voice. Lauper’s latest release, as you might guess from the title, is basically an acoustically-remade greatest hits album, so we get to hear her voice as it is today but in familiar territory. It presented the opportunity to ponder anew that metaphysical mystery for the ages, and I’ve concluded: Cyndi Lauper has either the best voice and is the best singer in the whole wide world … or the worst. I am leaning toward one of those choices, but I’m not going to tell you which one.
Oh, Charles, Charles, Charles, how can you be so mean? Are you forgetting the poor thing nearly lost her voice and her budding career almost 30 years ago, when the doctors told her the strain was so severe she’d never sing again (define sing …), but she spent a year with a renowned New York voice coach who got her back up on that stage? How can you ignore her sustained popularity through four decades, the millions of albums sold and the delirious crowds on tour? But I just keep thinking, how can I ignore the image of a billy goat raising his lips toward heaven and bleating, every time I hear Lauper hold a wavering note?
Let’s face it, the world is divided into love Cyndi/hate Cyndi, and some of my dearest, sweetest friends are in the former camp. A couple of gay guys, and the rest women, and none of them get out much. So yes, it’s a matter of my survival, but it’s also only fair to now say a few nice things about her and this album.
First thing I’ve got to say is, Damn, girl, you look gooood! She must have made one of those deals with the Devil because she’s hasn’t aged in nearly a quarter century, as cute and trim now as when she first she-bopped into our consciousness with her 1983 debut She’s So Unusual. But by now, she’s a mom slipping into her mid-50s.
Some would say that debut was the explosion she’s ridden her whole career, that nothing else she’s done has come close, and indeed over half the hit songs on The Body Acoustic do come from that first album. Hers was the first debut album ever, and the first by a solo artist, and the first by a female artist, to have the first four singles march straight up the charts to the Top Five. It’s sold somewhere between 10-15 million copies worldwide, and she got a Grammy for Best New Artist.
But give her credit for having created the elements of that now-distant, sustaining explosion. Besides that unmistakable voice, she had a look that was … so unusual, it became her trademark, with giggly girls the world over adopting it, making it mainstream to look like you just survived a bomb at the prom because, like Cyndi said, girls just wanna have fun. (You couldn’t turn on the then-young MTV without seeing that polka-dotted video in endless rotation.) Others would say it was an already-established part punk/part teeny-bop thrift store gaudy torn chic that she co-opted as a marketing ploy and made safe for teen consumption. But that would be cynical.
Give her credit for finding some great songs to sing. But not for writing them, mostly. “Money Changes Everything,” “True Colors,” “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “All Through the Night”? – nope. “Time After Time” and “She-Bop”? – co-wrote. (Here’s a footnote I love about “She-Bop”: her ode to female self-diddling made Tipper Gore’s PRMC – Parents’ Resource Music Center – Filthy Fifteen list of songs they wanted banned, in 1985. You go, girl!)
Give her credit for taking chances, doing it her way. Her follow-up to the massively successful first album was to go on tour with the WWF for the better part of two years as the manager of pro wrestler Wendi Richter, at the end of which she became a born-again Christian. (Hey! – I don’t make this stuff up …) She went for a more mature attitude and sound on her sophomore release True Colors and sales dropped sharply, and continued to fall with each new album. Not that there were many of them. Various discography web sites show you two dozen or more thumbnails or titles, but as you investigate them and eliminate the remixes (2), greatest hits (8!), live (2), Christmas (2), CD singles, covers, EPs, re-releases and DVD/videos, you’re left with (drum roll …) – 6 albums, in 23 years.
She was part of the “We Are the World” song/famine relief effort, got sucked into the awful movie “Vibes,” opened big tours for Cher (twice) and Tina Turner, contributed an endearing number for a Rugrats’ movie soundtrack, did some TV and got two Emmy noms and won one for “Mad About You,” sang Young Pink at Roger Waters’ live staging in Berlin of The Wall, made a few more forgettable movies, has been an advocate and philanthropist for women’s rights, Planned Parenthood, amfAR and several gay charitable organizations for her entire career (a symbiotic relationship if ever there was one), and is about to open on Broadway starring as Pirate Jenny in “The Threepenny Opera.”
Maybe Broadway will be her niche, as TV and films never proved to be, and the rock world will lose … that voice. That voice is just a little raspy at times now, as revealed by this latest greatest hits release, ever so slightly and very occasionally tattered at the edges, but otherwise as strong as it ever was (in her case, that’s very strong). That voice has always been her Achilles heel. It can be really expressive, which particularly comes out in many of these acoustic settings, but more often it’s an unrelenting shout, a 21st century Ethel Merman. She seems to hit notes precisely, just nails ‘em, but without nuance, no approach and no fade, no edges, just keep that knob at 11.
After all these years of being indecisive about Cyndi Lauper, listening to this album over and over pushed me off the ledge. In many ways it’s a very good album, and Lauper fans will surely go gaga over it. It starts out really strong with the first three cuts. “Money Changes Everything” is given a down-home, back porch, fiddles/harmonicas/harmoniums/handclaps treatment which works nicely. Acoustic guitar strumming continues into “All Through the Night” and then – whoa! – who’s that toaster? It’s Shaggy, ducking in and out with his own rapid-fire lyric take, an inspired bit of casting that turns the romantic ballad of bedded strangers on its head, while, like “Money,” startling the listener into hearing to the words with new ears. “Time After Time” isn’t twisted but sounds better than it ever has (well – truth is, I haven’t listened to all 70+ covers that exist, though Miles Davis’ was pretty good) with the addition of the mellifluous pipes of Sarah McLachlan. McLachlan’s other cameo lifts “Water’s Edge,” though not as dramatically.
The rest of the album takes pretty predictable and uninspiring paths. “She-Bop” is slowed-down and contemplative, shimmeringly atmospheric, but maybe acquiring too much gravitas for the subject matter. She mostly sings the song and hardly yells; this is a good thing. (The rasp is okay, lady; lots of great singers deal with it creatively. You don’t have to push every note trying to knock it out of the ballpark.) Next is one of the two new songs, a nice and anonymous (and therefore useless) “Above the Clouds,” on which Jeff Beck sounds like just another good guitar player. Next is the other newbie, “I’ll Be Your River” (see above: nice, anonymous), sung with Britney’s gal Vivian Green, who also adds, along with Ani DiFranco, nothing noteworthy to “Sisters of Avalon.” Kat Dyson’s slide work is tasty, though.
Then the belting of “Shine” knocks me off the ledge again. Look, I know That Voice is an old issue, settled in most people’s minds one way or the other 20 years ago, but this acoustic album resurrects it, particularly when Lauper demonstrates she can sing movingly when she chooses to. “True Colors” bounces back and forth between the belter and the singer and really makes me crazy. Like her lingering tendency to sometimes pronounce “R”s like “W”s (how can you sing “discouraged” and in the next line rhyme it with “couwage”?), isn’t it about time she outgrew hammering songs into submission? She proved years ago she has one of the strongest, loudest voices on the planet. It’s settled. Now please, just sing.
A final note: It’s a guilty pleasure, but while others may castigate upping the foolishness ante of “Girls” by adding Puffy Ami Yumi, I love it. It’s perfect. It’s an anthem for half of Japan, and the duo’s accented background vocals and chattering in Japanese midsong are exactly what Buddha and the kami intended. And – it’s the one song where Cyndi’s belting seems appropriate. Nice finish.
And speaking of nice finish, for all those fans wanting my head for the not-so-nice things I said about Ms. Lauper, I would like to point out that I went through the whole long career-overview review without using the word “ditz” once.
All DualDiscs are certainly not equal, and this one wastes all the sound opportunities. It’s acoustically clean and sparkly but there’s nothing special about the mix, and absolutely no discernible difference between the sound of the CD and the “Enhanced Stereo” version on the DVD side. What a waste.
You get four videos and a “Behind the Scenes” that’s pretty good compared to many I’ve sat through. It’s only five minutes long, and while there are some insignificant scenes, they’re brief, they add to the snapshot and you don’t feel your time’s being wasted. It seems really like peeking over shoulders and seeing how Cyndi Lauper works, along with the entourage who make it happen for her. Best of all: a bare minimum of hype. If there were any folks involved who thought they were creating transcendent art here, someone wisely kept them away from the cameras.
The vids: “Above the Clouds,” where Cyndi’s on the ground below the clouds singing to us through blades of grass and the nearest porch is a good 50 feet away. “Shine” features her band surrounding her on a porch and on a flatbed truck cruising through the sylvan suburbs. We see her strumming away at her dulcimer, which it turns out is where she has always done her composing. She strikes the billy goat pose many times. She’s alone on a different porch for “She-Bop,” looking a little more 53 (noted only for its exception), with some castle or stone cathedral looming next door. Beautiful lute-like guitar. Is that a sly knowing glance she gives right at the end? The band gets bigger and the porches and the handclappers more numerous as “Money Changes Everything” progresses, with much good feeling and, as with each video, a spinning dancing female somewhere in the picture.