Often overshadowed by the glorious, era-defining aesthetic of Day-Glo excess of her heyday is the fact that Cyndi Lauper has always been a first-rate songwriter and a phenomenal singer. Like Etta James or Björk, she possesses a powerful voice that is instantly recognizable: others (Gwen Stefani, most notably) may ape her style, but no one sounds anything like Lauper. And, looking beyond “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” her catalog, including her unjustly ignored ‘90s output, boasts a depth for which she’s seldom credited. Seeing an uptick in her commercial relevance following 2003’s At Last, a collection of standards (which didn’t consistently play to her strengths as a vocalist, but which was nonetheless more interesting than similar efforts by Rod Stewart and Queen Latifah), Lauper looked to her own songs for inspiration on the career-spanning The Body Acoustic.
Having already released a greatest hits anthology, Lauper instead overhauled some of her most well-known singles and several of the highlights of her later albums, giving the songs an acoustic-based production that’s rarely as stripped-down as the title suggests and inviting a diverse roster of collaborators to perform with her. The new arrangements both highlight the strengths of Lauper’s compositional skill and give credence to her songwriting process, since, ever the iconoclast, she’s always written most of her songs on the dulcimer. A mournful arrangement of “Time After Time,” a modern standard in its own right, has been a staple of Lauper’s live show for years and was the inspiration for the project, and she demonstrates an understanding of structure in choosing which of her other songs to revisit for the album. “She-Bop,” also from She’s So Unusual, is given a dark reading that sounds like a stern indictment of modern sexual politics, and the trip-hop infused title track from 1997’s Sisters of Avalon turns into a soulful jam session. There isn’t an arrangement on the album that misses its mark.
What keeps The Body Acoustic from being perhaps as essential as it could have been is the inconsistency of the guest stars. Adam Lazzara of TRL rockers Taking Back Sunday acquits himself well, providing some harmony vocals and just largely staying out of Lauper’s way as she sings the hell out of “Money Changes Everything.” Shaggy, by contrast, irrevocably mars what would otherwise be a flat-out gorgeous version of “All Through The Night.” Sarah McLachlan melismas and over-emotes and tries to out-sing Lauper on “Time After Time,” though her contribution to “Water’s Edge,” from 2004’s Shine, is understated and lovely. R&B singer Vivian Green, whose tone and power complement Lauper’s well, fares the best, singing harmony on “I’ll Be Your River” and in a call-and-response with a barely-there Ani DiFranco on “Sisters Of Avalon.”
Still, the tracks on which Lauper flies solo (“Fearless,” “She-Bop,” and “True Colors”) illustrate why The Body Acoustic would have been better to keep the focus entirely on her. She’s in fine voice here, and there’s certainly no faulting the material or her thoughtful arrangements of it. What The Body Acoustic ultimately offers is a new perspective on some of Lauper’s highest-profile work and what, for many listeners, will be a first look at her no less captivating work after the fluorescent hair-dye faded.