There's something a little desperate in the incoherence of Cyndi Lauper's new album, "Sisters of Avalon." The '80's icon seems to be flailing in her search for an updated identity, careening from trip-hop grooves to throaty punk to folky lite-rock. She's even hired the producer from Tricky's debut album to create a contemporary vibe.
But Lauper's not enough of a chameleon to pull off an album this eclectic. When she tries to do soul anthems like the title track and "The Ballad of Cleo and Joe," she gets dangerously close to self-parody -- as if Duran Duran had made a hip-hop record. "The Ballad of Cleo and Joe" is a house track about blue-collar nightclub love that has Lauper trying to summon the gritty pathos of Donna Summer on "She Works Hard For Her Money." But Lauper's voice is suited to punk, not funk. That's why the diva power vocals she has backing her on the insufferable "Sisters of Avalon" sound so absurd. When she sang "Girls Just Want To Have Fun," it was easy to picture the new wave nymphs she was singing about. But here, when she says, "Come on sisters," it's hard to see who she could be talking to.
Producer Mark Saunders' jazzy updating of Lauper's sound works better when it's more subtle, on the R&B inflected "Say A Prayer" and "Searching." There, the smooth rhythms compliment Lauper's voice instead of clashing with it. "Searching" has her sounding cool and knowing, like a song by Portishead. And even though "Brimstone and Fire," a song that seems to be about a tentative lesbian crush, has a beat that sounds like a Casio synthesizer set to reggae, it's bouncy, witty and maddeningly catchy.
The most interesting song on the album is "Love to Hate," only because it hints at what Lauper's career might have been if she had never broken through to the mainstream. After all, though Lauper is now a lite-rock radio staple, she was once a New York City new-wave goddess who got legions of preteen girls singing along to a hit song about masturbation, "She Bop." "Love to Hate" is a bluesy punk song that shows Lauper's voice at its jagged, wailing best. The anger in it adds welcome zest to this otherwise tame album.
At its best, Lauper's music is way more moving than
it has any right to be. There are several songs on
"Sisters of Avalon" that have the wonderful
melodrama of "Time After Time" and "True Colors."
"Hot Gets a Little Cold" and "Unhook the Stars" are
the kind of songs that can make life feel like a John
Hughes movie. "Unhook the Stars" is an
embarrassingly sad love song that was the title
track to the recent Nick Cassavetes film that
featured Lauper's husband, David Thornton. Although
both movie and song are easy to sneer at, the music
is affecting in the sentimental way that Cyndi
Lauper herself is. You can laugh at her and relate to
her at the same time.