She’s So Unusual certainly didn’t sound like a multi-platinum record on first listen, but that just goes to show you. Through a lucky strike of talent (a stupendous voice capable of more tricks than a trained seal), tunes (a bizarre but superlative convocation of new wave and pop originals and covers, sparked by Robert Hazard’s seemingly innocuous “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”) and timing (just reaching its stride and household penetration, the two-and-a-half-year-old MTV was desperately seeking colorful characters for mutually satisfying liaisons), the New York native’s first solo album, released in January ’84, was positively unstoppable, spawning five remarkably dissimilar hit singles (from ebullient to somber, giddy to bitter) before relinquishing its grabby hold on the era’s imagination. Originally recognized as the only memorable asset of New York’s unlamented Blue Angel, Cyndi Lauper’s big voice grew to scarifying proportions under the sympathetic production of Rick Chertoff, supported by the able playing of Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman, leaders of Philadelphia’s then-obscure Hooters. Lauper’s songwriting was just getting started, so the album draws on outside material — a potentially disastrous minefield — which proved superb, from the Brains’ “Money Changes Everything” (much better in Lauper’s live 45 version than on the album’s somewhat turgid rendition) to Prince’s unforgettable “When You Were Mine.”
Two years later, the inevitable letdown of True Colors is fairly serious as Lauper, who co-produced and co-wrote most of the material, takes bad spills on both fronts. While “Maybe He’ll Know” and “True Colors” and “Change of Heart” are wonderful, a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is painfully bland. Considering what a unique and remarkable singer Lauper is, the squandering of her gifts on this uninspired, halfbaked throwaway is tragic.
Seemingly with nowhere to go but up, Lauper then made — after a lengthy delay during which the record was advertised in Billboard as Kindred Spirit — a record that is even worse. Reeking of commercial trepidation, A Night to Remember showcases a no-two-the-same set of vocal guises in service of mediocre, often bizarre material by various hits-for-hire songwriters. The touching “I Drove All Night” and the brassy “My First Night Without You” retain some of Lauper’s allure, but an artist whose initial popularity sprang from her charmingly casual aplomb shouldn’t sound this anxious. It’s depressing to hear such a gifted singer turn her natural abilities into a costume parade of no-two-the-same vocal guises in service of mediocre, often bizarre, material by various hits-for-hire types. Scratchy snippets of imitation Appalachian folk, coy novelties (“Like a Cat,” “Insecurious”), a Joan Armatrading soundalike, a melodramatic Spectorish torch song — it’s all here, and none of it works.
Lauper’s life followed her career for a while; divorce and illness (followed, more auspiciously, by a new marriage) kept her from making a new album for four years. When she did, Lauper had the good sense to co-write all of the autobiographical songs on Hat Full of Stars, collaborating with such empathetic pals as Allee Willis, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Nicky Holland, Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian. But putting house-music hotshot Junior Vasquez in the mix as co-producer wasn’t such a great notion (especially if he’s responsible for the awful synth-drum sound that afflicts “That’s What I Think,” “Feels Like Christmas” and several others), and parading players from Carlos Alomar to Hugh Masekela through the studio dissipates any organic feeling she might have sought. The same stylistic insecurity that made A Night to Remember so forgettable afflicts this far-better album; the record works often enough on a track-by-track basis but has no overall cohesion. When Lauper doesn’t strain to sing herself up various species of tree, Hat Full of Stars has a plain, honest grace. “Sally’s Pigeons,” despite its prosaic memory, is lovely; the soul-tinged ’60s-isms of “Who Let in the Rain” and the title track, an unaffected Carole King-like reflection (“I’m trying to live in the present but I keep tripping on the past”), provide needed balance to the exertions that elsewhere mar the album.
A decade after her success, Lauper finally gave in to history’s tug, and forestalled the crisis of another album with a greatest hits package. Although salted with three new cuts, Twelve Deadly Cyns is pointedly aimed at springboarding a second life from “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Pinning the song to a slow reggae-funk groove and tacking on the refrain from Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” Lauper succeeds in reinvigorating her signature number — which inadvertently makes its original version and such first-album compatriots as “Money Changes Everything” and “She Bop” (all remastered to accentuate what never before sounded like harsh, shitty and artificial production) seem antiquated. A post-AIDS remake of Barry Mann/Cynthia Weill’s “I’m Gonna Be Strong” (originally done by Blue Angel, though it’s not the song for which Lauper’s first band was known) and a previously unwaxed reggae original (“Come on Home”) bookend the oldies. The US edition of Twelve Deadly Cyns eliminates one of three Hat Full of Stars selections (too bad) and a ballad from the soundtrack of Tycoon (good idea).
Blue Angel’s mix of ’50s hokum, ’60s girl-group theatrics and ’70s detachment would have been more noteworthy if Blondie hadn’t issued a more original album of the same a few years earlier. Lauper warbles and trills skillfully but without much charm on a disc that was reissued after her solo career took off.