While spending the better part of two decades off the mainstream radar, pop icon Cyndi Lauper has followed her creative muse across some diverse terrain, resulting in a catalogue that is far richer than those who think of her as just an ‘80s relic might expect. With her public profile significantly elevated by a recent stint on The Celebrity Apprentice, on which she often butted heads with the likes of Holly Robinson-Peete and Summer Sanders, it’s a shame that her latest album, Memphis Blues, is one of her weakest efforts.
Lauper’s voice is one the most powerful and distinctive in pop music, and that has served her well on albums like the progressive Sisters of Avalon and 2008’s Bring Ya to the Brink, a years-overdue collection of contemporary dance tracks. But Memphis Blues proves that Lauper’s is not a voice that is well suited to singing in any style. It isn’t simply a matter of her tar-thick Bronx accent making it impossible for anyone to associate her with the city of the album’s title: Her performances here too often come across as stagey and lack the authority of both the best blues vocalists and of Lauper’s most memorable pop hits.
To make up for the fact that blues music isn’t a natural fit for her, Lauper surrounds herself with some of the genre’s biggest names. Allen Toussaint, Ann Peebles, B.B. King, and Jonny Lang all contribute to the record, and that collaborative approach generally elevates the record. There’s simply no faulting Toussait’s tremendous blues piano licks on “Early in the Mornin’” and “Mother Earth,” easily the two strongest cuts on the record. Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica playing on “Down Don’t Bother Me” and opener “Just Your Fool” also gives the record a real punch. Of the proper vocal duets, the fierce “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” with Peebles is the most effective, as the timbre of Peebles’s throaty alto is the best complement to Lauper’s trademark warble.
The duets with Lang, however, come across as strident and ineffective. Lauper’s clipped phrasing on a cover of “How Blue Can You Get” is at odds with Lang’s slow-handed guitar riffs and ragged vocal turn, and “Crossroads” is as clichéd as the material on Lang’s last few underwhelming efforts. The tracks on which Lauper flies solo are no less a mixed bag. “Romance in the Dark” is languid and soulful, but it would be a stretch to call Lauper’s performance bluesy in any conventional sense. The boogie-woogie groove on “Don’t Cry No More” is the arrangement that best suits Lauper’s gifts, and it’s easily the song to which she brings the most conviction.
Memphis Blues is a disappointment because it doesn’t play to Lauper’s considerable strengths. She remains a vocalist of phenomenal depth and power, but she sounds lost in this material and in these arrangements. Her out-of-control, sloppy performance of “Just Your Fool” on the finale of Celebrity Apprentice was an unfortunate harbinger. Lauper has deserved a mainstream comeback for some time now, but Memphis Blues is unlikely to be the album to make that happen.