Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Stray Cat Sings Back

Today’s formative-album replay: Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual. Surely I can’t be the only listener who thought that of the two pop divas who released debut albums in 1983, Madonna was a flash in the pan but Cyndi--she was the artist of substance with real staying power. This long-overdue revisit to her first record gives me little reason to revise that personal preference, even as it’s clear why, next to the zeitgeist-surfing Ms. Ciccone, Lauper’s pixie-with-moxie shtick made her seem, after her initial splash of fame, like a novelty act, cousin to Thomas Dolby’s mad professor. She may even have been ahead of her time, or at least my time: What struck me anew when I double-checked the date of this release is how much Lauper’s cobbled-together Betty Boop/thrift shop/DayGlo-Goth aesthetic must have softened me up for things like the retro mania of Pee-Wee Herman, the warped classicism of Tim Burton, and the vocal abandon of Bjork. And I’m pretty sure her okay cover of “When You Were Mine” was my introduction to Prince.

Other, less obvious influences I clocked on this listen: The gutsy “Money Changes Everything” sounds a bit like a Springsteen outtake as sung by Patti Smith’s little sister, and a few of the mid-tempo rockers has distinctly Police-like skitter. But many of the album’s signature tracks pair rubbery New Wave synth/organ sounds with Lauper’s husky yelp over songs with 1950s doo-wop architecture, particularly the ebullient feminist-ish anthem “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “She-Bop,” her heavy-breathing minor-key ode to masturbation, as well as the endearingly bonkers album closers “I’ll Kiss You” and “Yeah Yeah.”

In a class all their own are a pair of lovely ballads, which offer a study in contrasts: Against the deathless “Time After Time,” with its weary verse lifting irrestistibly into the hold-tight harmony of the chorus, Jules Shear’s pristine “All Through the Night” offers hearts-of-space synth arpeggios and too-cute metaphors. The picture of faithfulness painted in “Time” (who doesn’t listen with anticipation for Lauper to break from the final chorus line to belt “I will be waiting”?) towers over “Night’s” hollow tautology: “Until it ends, there is no end.” Lauper’s pop moment may have been similarly short-lived, but it was a moment, all right, and our attention was richly rewarded.

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