Friday, 4 September 2009

Celebrate Cyndi Style

Cyndi Lauper is not dead and I would like to celebrate this by writing a coma-inducing blog entry about her. Peddling her immeasurable talents with her old band Blue Angel, Cyndi's soaring yelp ignites into a wistful elation barely containable on their self-titled album's opening track Maybe He'll Know. The thriving, jiving Cyndi's vocal hovers, plunges and rises to majestic stature. Blue Angel were arguably ahead of there time, and success never happened. This track should have been their winning ticket and lives on in the 1998 movie cult classic 200 Cigarettes.

Below: Cyndi's meal ticket She's So Unusual has sold 16 million since it's release in the fall of 1983.
Move onto 1983 and her debut album She's So Unusual is a blistering and vivid collection of equally emphatic and committed performances. Co-writing the modern classic Time After Time, 80s corporate nostalgia found a song unable to be trampled on by American Idol, funerals and cynical charity commercials asking people who are not gay to give blood - it's a lifeline beyond commercial approach. She fires from all cylinders on Tom Gray's combusting Money Changes Everything, single number 5, and it increases in value with every listen.

Lauper's engine power here is more than matched on her first signature song Girls Just Want To Have Fun - whether her interpretation goes over the heads of most people, she reclaimed what was once a very misogynistic song and gave it irony, star-shaped sunglasses and city-dwelling morning conga-dancing that would make even Gloria Estefan cringe. Its unmistakably scampering pace flashes before your very eyes and one is left chasing after her to join the party.

The drilling electro of She Bop is a lurid sewer gauntlet, and first unequivocal dance track. Littered with instructive innuendo, Lauper hic-ups deflectively giving the game away, which is synonymous with many of her 80s tracks. These various Cyndi-isms are what Madonna would imitate on Material Girl, Like A Virgin and Open Your Heart: and the story of Madge fervently watching Cyndi perform at the 1985 Grammy's from the side of the stage seems not unbelievable.

Below: the pressure of not knowing when Sussanah Hoff's will re-record her hits finally got to Cyndi during a photoshoot.
Sussanah Hoff's of The Bangles fame recently revealed to no one listening that she would love to cover a Jules Shear song called All Through The Night as it was not a hit apparantly, except it was Cyndi's fourth consecutive top 5 US hit single: shame that, as obviously its melting sincerity needs a second rate Sheena Easton re-writing history. No video was shot, a decision made by a confident record company knowing it would be a hit even without one - I would dearly have loved this to have had a video as Cyndi has so few that are truly half decent.

Cyndi co-wrote the song Steady with Shear, which became his only dent on the Billboard Hot 100 at number 68. The scrambling hot mess Right Track, Wrong Train was the lead single's attractive B-side, and an old Blue Angel track What A Thrill was the second Cyndi track to appear on the Goonies OST, only released in Japan in 1985, and the yodelling Goonies 'R' Good Enough became her 5th US top ten hit.

Below: True Colours featured a cluttered array of guests, including goddess Aimee Mann, and yet was a remarkably elegant affair, and sold 12 million copies worldwide despite not producing many hit singles.

Her sophomore set True Colours kicks off with the statuesque Hi-NRG fireworks of Change of Heart: deafning drums like flashing lightning bolts strike vividly, Nile Rodgers on an equally glitzy bass groove, The Bangles on contractually soulful backing vocals and Cyndi making one not take any notice of them. Its stark clutter of aching melodrama peaked at #3 in the US yet was a disasterous flop in the UK despite shooting its candid video in London with unemployed people staring at her.

Below: lollygagging bopper Lauper danced in London all day to film Change of Heart's cinematic promotional clip.
She even hic-ups for the sake of it, like a baby cheetah yelping for its Mother - it is often the vulnerability of Lauper's vocals which was the appeal. And yet with a trembling and courageous performance she lifts all the weight here seemingly on her own. Its B-side was Heartbeats, which was merely an extended version.

The title track was her 3rd signature song, an exceptionally well-arranged ballad - Lauper's angelic and ghostly vocals assume an unseen quality of sympathetic tenderness. Not even the incredibly gifted singer Phil Collins could upstage her on his Babyface-produced version from 1998. Cyndi surrenders all oxygen from her lungs to finish this one off, sounding expressively strained like Stevie Nicks lifting Courtney Love as a bench press, before all anguish is gently dilluted with a return to her creamy delivery.

Above: a stunning 80s update of a classic Rita Hayworth pose taken from her original True Colours tourbook.

She re-records the Maybe He'll Know (MHK), which is to be the only track here to retain the brilliant sliced-and-diced organ that made GJWTHF so playful: it is to be a single, yet the adult-contemporary snowballing ballad Boy Blue is chosen instead, which stalls at #71 in America despite the profits going to AIDS, and in 1987 MHK is eventually released in Holland where it becomes a #41 smash. Male doo-wopping backing vocals from man candy Billy Joel are added, and an extra glittery 'Special Mix' originally intended for US radio appears after its sell-by-date on the B-side to 1989's I Drove All Night.

The temperature drops dramatically on the album: the smoldering glow of her debut has been frozen over. Cyndi recorded one particularly arctic acoustic ballad Heading For The Moon - sweeter than True Colours, it was relegated to B-side status for reasons unknown (Iko Iko is just hideously unwelcome in such knowledge). Lauper filters innocense and distress on her finest outtake yet.

The peroxide mare took another 3 years to follow up a record that was only successful for barely 3 singles, during which her film career bombed, the bullet-proof Hole In My Heart (All The Way To China) performed abysmally stateside despite not being in the country to promote it (Cyn was songwriting in Russia, but it went top ten in Australia), and well Cyndi seemed to take this very personally. It is said Cyn flipped when Hole fell flat: growing weary of recording commerical-sounding pop fluff, the anguish is evident on the stale-but-glamrous nature of 1989's pensive A Night To Remember.

Below: Vibes may have flopped harder than Rosie O'Donnell's flaps, but its soundtrack remains the most sought after collectable movie soundtrack.
It 'all went wrong' for Cyndi with the release of her third studio album, a collection of songs clearly designed to be hits: the sensual rock ballad I Drove All Night was an international hit, other singles did well in South America and the album was her first and last UK top 10 studio set, but in America radio would not go near her and the LP charted poorly there.

If True Colours had commercially trailed off in the States by single number 4 (the baffling choice of Boy Blue stalled at #71), it was at least a beautiful and well-crafted affair that was noted by music critics. She's So Unusual got 5 stars from Q magazine and True Colours recieved 4, but A Night To Remember was justifiably ripped to shreds.

Below: Lauper packs her bags and heads for the outer reaches of the Billboard Hot 100.

The album was a stagnant selection of mostly cynical attempts to cluster together 'Cyndi Lauper songs'. Four tracks remain worthy of rescue from the deluge of Bangles cast-off's. The lead off single triggered Lauper's deeper register and first glimpse of the soaring, bluesy been-around-the-block folksy vocal that would propell largely all of her recording since (even for her dance tracks), and is the closes thing to a visceral and intensely compelled performance similar to Money Changes Everything, but sans the immersed yelping.

The sturdy yet scrappy Bette Midler ballad I Don't Wanna Be Your Friend crumbles loose as Lauper's throaty stoicism does all the hand gestures for her - it is rumored Diane Warren hated her version so much that she personally put a stop to its release. The winnowing title track boasts a seductive vocal and temperature-rising bridges ('I feel your voice - haunting, me' is almost heroic).

Below: Lauper tries to forget all about the glorious hot mess Hole In My Heart by wearing as much slap as possible.
Finally, the adorable Unconditional Love. Desperately naive, a perfumed mist is created as Lauper's cradling vocal illuminates the skies with a terrific key change - the telling lyric 'got no sense of direction, now' scrapes the ground. This song could have rescued her campaign and given her another top ten in the USA where songs such as these were eaten up, but was adopted by bangladette Sussanah Hoffs on her debut solo album and became an international hit despite not even being released.

Above: Unconditional Love was released as single number 7 in Hong Kong, but was covered by crazed perfectionist Sussanah Hoff's, who recently admitted that Time After Time was in fact written by herself in 2003.

However, the idea of consensual and unconditional love requiring 'surrender' is a novel idea, but ultimately just misses the point. On the album's worst offenders, such as the dire Insecurious, she just sounds like a hand puppet, and the splintering disco-smaltz Dancing With A Stranger is savagely corportate songwriting at its worst. Whereas Lauper thrust herself into the wanton abandon of her debut, this album is devoid from any of her trademark character and vulnerability.

Between albums she releases the twinkle-little-star power ballad The World Is Stone, which becomes a massive #2 in France and bows at #15 in the UK, yet leaves no skidmarks in America. Similar in style to the single version of What's Going On, Tina Arena and Celine would have been proud Eurovision entries with this gem. It is a wonder it never appeared on her next studio set, which badly needed a notable selling point. Its B-side is the ballad You Have To Learn How To Live Alone.

Below: the 4 million selling Hat Full of Stars was written as a message to ex-partner David Wolff, and its meditative 30s inspired cover art later came into comparison with that of Stars by Simply Red.

Returning to full action after 4 hefty years of bad acting, Hat Full of Stars represents the proper stage 2 of Cyndi Lauper and presents the naked outline of an ambitious songwriter. For the first time Cyndi has a proper 'voice' in her songs and isnot merely interpreting those written by men albeit terrifically. The wounded estrangement of Who Let In The Rain is a divine suspension of stifled heartbreak and would streak if it were palpable.

Cyndi deals with difficult subject matter and all songs are autobiographical statements: her bittersweet passion takes a pleasing detour on the rueful storytelling of the rattling blues derision of the snearing Dear John, but snarling melancholia and the lingering damage of abuse tinge the edges throughout.

These nervy sentiments make an auspicious second debut album from Cyndi, and A Part Hate is a sensational lyric of social commentray ('hate me and hate you and proud of it too' is sung so viscerally like a sword going straight in - sometimes she can't find a vein, but when she finally hits her nerve the gushing can't stop). It manages to soundtrack the 'circle of life' in the African savanah with a cheerfully crass native choir soothing her inflictions.

Below: Cyn sells 6 million copies of her greatest hits and deliberately creates a cartoon image of herself to promote the CD.
After Cyndi Lauper's sensational greatest hits campaign successfuly reminded people who she was a mere 10 years into her career, her next studio album looked as if it could not fail. Given that 12 Deadly Cyns ... and then some recieved a belated US release a whole year later than in Europe, there were already signs that Sony were quite content to hold her as a heritage artist, to successively feed off diminishing compilation returns instead of fully supporting her artistic and commerical development. The celtic I'm Gonna Be Strong re-records a Blue Angel cover single and effectively tinges the project with the next phase of her 'I can really sing' singing style.

Below: the solid work of Sisters of Avalon ranks as one of her best albums and yet sold little over a million copies, and Lauper gives her producer a complex

And so Sisters of Avalon has all the qualifications behind it: Lauper's dazzling world-concquering signiture anthem has been re-invented with the post Hat Full of Stars stamp all over it, her demons have been cremated and with Jan Pulsford as her writing partner creates her most confident set of songs to date whilst managing to twist some of the same tricks as on its predecessor's best moments.

Below: Lauper says those earings 'weigh me down, weigh me down'.
Encouraged by her procuder Mark Saunders, she tanscends her novelty factor and offers the smouldering match-stick strike of Say A Prayer, the foaming-at-the-mouth gut-wrenching Love To Hate purges celebrity bile, Eurovision-wrothy stomper Ballad of Cleo & Joe, and her milky vocals on the high rise incarcerated trip-hop ballad Fall Into Your Dreams gives balance to some of the more eccentric numbers such as the girl-on-girl reggae of Brimstone & Fire ('I let her touch my shoulder and I didn't even scold her' has to be one of her best lines ever). However, Cyndi's diva ways nearly made Saunders quit music altogether: when asked if working wih Lauper was easy he yelled 'Er...I wish I could say yes...I really do. But if I did, I'd be lying'. Yikes!

Most fabulously, the skittish organ sound used so well on her debut, as well as True Colour's Maybe He'll Know, thaws out what was getting cold on the first single You Don't Know, a partly spoken rant against being a retard. The highlight of the album for me is the near perfect combing breeze of folksy lost single Hot Gets A Little Cold, with its simplistic statement of faith. Joan Osbourne's One of Us was always a song I dearly wished could have been recorded by Lauper (written by her former collaborators no less), and this acousitic ballad is not a million miles of the Sheryl Crow, Alanis, Sophie B. Hawkins and Joan Osbourne radio hits of the time.

Above: one might think Cher would stop licking her lips for 1 second and give Cynthia some proper publicity in 2008.

Instead, single number 2 was a rather eccentric choice, the seam-bursting title track - it remains a live favourite to this day and when Cyndi's trembling flame-flickering vocal gristles as she sings 'reverberating' and is the album's finest moment. However, released to radio it just sounds cluttered and like a badly executed lesbian anthem - it effectively killed any chance of the album getting out the gutter. Hot Gets A Little Cold was the only track on the album not co-written by Pulsford, which for reasons I shall get into when I reach the Shine album are retrospectively satisfying.

Below: Lauper is gently nudged out of her contract with a folky festive album containing half a dozen inviting numbers (Home On Christmas Day) and a few hilarious disasters (Minnie & Santa).
Cyndi parts with Sony in 1998 with the cryptically-titled Merry Christmas ... Have A Nice Life, which features the sophisticated Home On Christmas Day with a goodnatured vocal, and other original cuts Christmas Conga and Minne & Santa - both of which ignite vintage Lauper mischief.

Below: the outstanding Shine album was as vibrant as her debut, and remains arguably her very best. Yet her record company folded and the singer was left stranded to release a makeshift E.P until the album was set free in Japan.
To finally reach Shine, it was initiated by Cyndi to in actual fact record a dance album. This did not go down well with her Avalon co-hort Pulsford and let's just say these two broads no longer speak ('I just didn't get the direction and I think by then the sell by date of our writing partnership had expired' oinked Pulsford). Words went down, in 1999 Cyndi released her cover of Disco Inferno in preparation and dyed her hair purple (which Pulsford criticized Cyndi by remarking that she was just giving people what they want - sounds like sexual frustration to me).

Highlights included the gallant title track, revving up Tom Gray's well-oiled engine ferociously well on It's Hard To Be Me (written about Anna Nicole Smith, who requests to use it as her reality show's theme and is turned down), the very clumsy albeit Don't Tell Me sounding Madonna Whore, the TLC bee-stung vocal on This Kind of Love, the clunky dancefloor muscle of Higher Plane (which sounds like a Living Proof track), the glass sharp speed-ballad Eventually, Rather Be With You's eyesquinting gaze, Comfort You's scarred regret, and the almighty reunion between Cyndi and her Time After Time co-writer Rob Hyman on the sweeping Water's Edge which dillutes all confusion and drove lesbians crazy at some festival back in the day (I used to have the live file and it would prick hairs on my arms).

Anyway, the album leaked back in September 2001 and before that an array of dance versions were set free also, which unfortunately I no longer have. It is galling to be reminded of this as they were rather good if cheap (Gloria Estefan and J-LO would have been proud to have them on a 'Miami Remixes' style E.P).

Below: the competant vocal showcase At Last was an album of standards, accompanied by some of her most impressive photographs yet, and gave the singer her first US top 40 album in over 15 years.

The title track from her standards album At Last is a seductive after-hours ballad and of the finest recordings of her career, which can't be said for much of the other tracks such as her duet with Toni Benett. In 2003 Cyndi records one of her most compelling vocals for the Headwig OST on the track Midnight Radio.

Below: making do with record label negotiating, she agrees to cover her hits by putting the blame on other artists with whom she duets on most tracks.

Expenses are spared in 2005 as she takes the piss slightly with The Body Acoustic, and the thoughtful ballad Above The Clouds is more like lying on the front lawn with ants crawling in your hair. My hero Ani Difranco guests, as do many other less noteworthy talent and thankfully Kelly Osbourne's duet is canned.

Below: far from her first forray into dance, her unequivocal disco record is a flop despite the emphatic material being her most contemporary ever.
The Japanese top 20 album Bring Ya To The Brink was a redblooded re-awakening for Cyndi. The bursting adrenaline on Into The Nightlife defies gravity, the heavy flow of Lauper's exhausted euphoria on Same Ol' Story is ready to pounce, and both are her most bombastic entries since 1984. The sagging Lyfe may well be regarded as a let-down , but is the only track here that could be on any of her albums from the 90s onwards and burns from the same candle as Say A Prayer (hello again organs - you would think fans would make more of a big deal about Cyndi's Cyndi-isms littered throughout her records). Similarly, on the taut Digital Dog produced Give It Up when she sings 'turn it around' it's hard not to flashback to Change of Heart's memorable lyric.

Below: Cyndi thought she could scare gays into buying her high-volume single Into The Nightlife, but forgets to shoot a decent video (this still is perhaps one of the few decent shots).
The dreamy Livin' Joy-meets-Love Inc egg yolk consistency of the throbbing Echo ebbs and flows like a Hi-NRG True Colours, the pixilated trance blizzard of Lay Me Down out-spooked gym bunny Steve Nicks and coughed up disagreements with its producder Kleerup who retaliates with the diss track Thank You For Nothing using the same backing track (wake up and smell the coffee if you don't believe this). With a bleeding vocal, her world-weary indignation seathes out of the speakers as the pounding pathose sifts through her fingers - the melancholia is overwhelming as Lauper laments 'it's just loves despair'.

Above: Lauper's casual elegance was not matched by the material on At Last, but 2008's Rain On Me is so beautiful it could dillute an earthquake.

The spiralling disco of Set Your Heart was Kylie's Step Back In Time with a pulse, Dragonette ejaculate their wet dream for Cyndi on the very Shine-sounding Grab A Hold whilst managing to sound like her missing 1989 lifesaver, and Rain On Me is a whole new level of Time After Time.

Turn it around, give it up, and swearing like a shortchanged hooker confirms Cyndi has came full circle - her vivid songwriting is intact and her yelping commitment augments her spectacular full package. Cyndi is the real deal, y'all, with just the tiniest hint of desperation when she releases the phenomenal Girls Just Wanna Set Your Heart in February 2009.

Downloads on request.


Mike said...

What a brilliant re-cap of a truly amazing artist. I love Cyndi. Her first two albums are so special to me and "Bring Ya To The Brink" was my favourite album of 2008. I do lose my way somewhere in the 90s but I need to go back and re-discover those gems.

Jason said...

SO much fun to read your thorough retrospective of Cyndi's diverse and illustrious career. I'm a still a fan of most of A Night to Remember's unique pensiveness, including "I Don't Want to Be Your Friend." Cyndi's vocals on that song feel effectively rousing to me; it sure beats Desmond Child's version, even though his more rockin' rendition is also worthwhile.

I can totally understand why Cyndi would be frustrated that "Hole in My Heart (All the Way to China)" didn't become a massive hit. What a brilliant, adrenaline-pumping performance and delivery. SUCH a cool song. I'm sure that you must also already know Cyndi's other rare one-off tracks, like "Unabbreviated Love" and her amazing, very early electronic cover of Fleetwood Mac's "You Make Lovin' Fun." In the unlikely chance that you haven't heard those yet, definitely be sure to check them out. And thanks for this informative, in-depth blog post!

Diva Incarnate said...

My favourite responce ever - always great to chat Cyndi with people. Unabbreviated Love, I always found to be very Gloria Estefan in production (but then again so are parts of Madonna's song Like A Prayer). Can you believe I've never heard a proper recording of Cyndi's Loving cover? I must track that down, then, if it's electronic (ie, right up my street).

Jason said...

Glad you liked the comments! You're right about "Unabbreviated Love," some very Gloria Estefan elements in there. I have "You Make Lovin' Fun" on CD, thanks to my Los Angeles friend Kieran, who's another die-hard Cyndi fanatic. Let me know your e-mail address, and I'll send that rare track along to you later. I haven't ever even uploaded it yet! Really amazing song, totally electronic, recorded before she was even officially "Cyndi," but it's very obvious that it's her.