Saturday, January 3, 2015

My January 2015 Artist Of The Month Is . . . Cyndi Lauper! She’s So Unusual

The Good: Infectious melodies, Decent lyrics, Good vocals
The Bad: Short, Some bits of musical limitation
The Basics: One of the iconic albums of the 1980s, She’s So Unusual made Cyndi Lauper a household name . . . and started her musical career at its peak!

Happy 2015! As I begin a slew of fresh new reviews, I am excited to begin the year out with no cache of previously-published music reviews. That means that for the first time since I began W.L. Swarts Reviews The Universe, all of my Artist Of The Month selections will be brand new! Instead of bouncing between reviews from a male or female Artist Of The Month within each month, each month will now have its own, distinctive, musical artist for me to explore as I try to enrich my appreciation of music of all genres. I decided to start the year with an exploration of the musical works of Cyndi Lauper for a simple reason: I was going through a list of best-selling female artists of all time and Lauper’s name was pretty high on the list and it occurred to me that I had never reviewed one of her albums!

So, I thought I would start at the beginning with Cyndi Lauper’s solo debut album, She’s So Unusual. She’s So Unusual has the distinction of being one of the best-selling debut albums of all time, having sold twenty-two million copies around the world, since its release in 1983. Unfortunately, it also has the distinction of being – far and away – the best-selling Cyndi Lauper album of the artist’s career. When I learned that, I decided that part of my goal this month would be to make my own judgment as to whether or not that is warranted. If is it, there is something unfortunate about that because while the four well-known singles off She’s So Unusual range from memorable to meaningful and excellent, She’s So Unusual is far from a perfect album.

With ten tracks clocking out at 38:42, She’s So Unusual is partially the creative work of Cyndi Lauper – who is a legitimate artist, not just a performer – and the team that was assembled for her at Portrait (her label back in the day). The result is an album that launched Lauper to the status of worldwide superstar . . . without necessarily showing off her actual talents. Lauper is credited as a co-writer on four of the ten songs (which means that Prince had a more solid claim over the creation of the song “When You Were Mine” – which he wrote alone – than Lauper had over any of the songs on She’s So Unusual!). That said, Lauper provides all of the lead vocals on She’s So Unusual and she is credited as an “arranger,” which given how the instrumentals are all programmed, one suspects is something more along the production end. The album was produced by Rick Chertoff and William Wittman, so how much creative control Lauper actually had is debatable.

Instrumentally, She’s So Unusual is very much a sign of the times. A product of early 1980’s pop, She’s So Unusual is dominated by synthesizers and percussion machines. Lauper’s arrangements and those of the creative team behind the album, however, had a decent sense of musical ability. That resulted in a number of infectious tunes and actual distinctive melodies. The mix of pop classics like the up-tempo “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “She Bop” with slower, more contemplative ballads like “Time After Time” and “All Through The Night” gives the album a decent sense of musical flow. Lauper’s debut does not fall into the same trap as so many pop albums that are synth-based in that the album never sounds monolithic or dull; the tracks are each distinctive and musically whole.

Vocally, Cyndi Lauper is all over. Songs like “He’s So Unusual” have Lauper presenting a nasal, high-pitched series of vocals that border on the annoying. She is able to present wonderful, beautiful musical moments with her voice – as evidenced by “Time After Time.” Unfortunately, like so many synth-driven pop albums of the early 1980s, She’s So Unusual suffers on songs like “When You Were Mine” because Lauper’s natural voice is so altered by production elements that it is almost unrecognizable.

For an album made famous by the pure pop power of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” She’s So Unusual is actually more thematically substantive and smart than the most famous track off it would make one think. Lauper and her writing team tackle a number of subjects ranging from masturbation (“She Bop”) to desire (“I’ll Kiss You”). In fact, She’s So Unusual opens with the substantive song about human relationships, “Money Changes Everything.” Lauper’s biggest commercial success opens with the warning set to music: “They shake your hand and they smile / And they buy you a drink / They say we'll be your friends / We'll stick with you till the end / Ah but everybody's only / Looking out for themselves / And you say well who can you trust / I'll tell you it's just / Nobody else's money” (“Money Changes Everything”) and it is a powerful start.

As one might expect, the bulk of the songs are about love and human relationships. Lauper’s reaches her poetic peak when she sings “Sometimes you picture me / I'm walking too far ahead / You're calling to me, I can't hear / What you've said / Then you say - go slow / I fall behind / The second hand unwinds” (“Time After Time”), though there are a number of good lines scattered throughout She’s So Unusual.

Unfortunately the replayability of She’s So Unusual is diminished by the album’s short duration and some incredibly repetitive tracks. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” might have a hypnotic effect (or annoying, depending on one’s perspective), but it has nothing on “Witness.” “Witness” has a good message that is almost entirely lost by the repetition of “I don't wanna be / I don't wanna be a witness / No, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh - witness” so many times that it obscures the meaningful rest of the song.

All that said, She’s So Unusual is a decent pop-rock album and a fine debut that makes me excited about spending a month listening to the music of Cyndi Lauper! For all its problems, the best song unique to the album (her most famous singles from She’s So Unusual are on Lauper’s innumerable compilation albums) is “When You Were Mine,” the low point is the vignette “He’s So Unusual.”

For other, former, Artist Of The Month selections, please check out my reviews of:
Vespertine - Bjork
The Collection - Alanis Morissette
Hits And Rarities - Sheryl Crow


For other movie reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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