At 52, Cyndi Lauper has a great `Body Acoustic'

She adds a dulcimer to her '80s hits

December 16, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Twenty years ago, she was so unusual with her babydoll voice, neon rainbow hair and equally colorful, bizarre outfits. Today, Cyndi Lauper is 52, the mother of a 7-year-old son named Declyn. But although the hair is one color (bleached blond) and the clothes are far more understated, the native New Yorker is still a little offbeat.

Take her latest project, The Body Acoustic. The 12-cut set is essentially a greatest hits collection - but with a twist. Lauper's '80s smashes such as "All Through the Night," "Time After Time" and her signature "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" are recast as all-acoustic jams featuring the artist on the dulcimer. The former heavily stylized, synthetically arranged songs receive treatments that mingle elements of country, reggae, folk and the blues.

Other artists have recently "unplugged" their old material. This summer, Alanis Morissette revisited her 1995 monster hit album Jagged Little Pill, placing aggressive rock tunes such as "You Oughta Know" in tame, folksy settings. The results were mixed at best.

But since blasting into the mainstream with her genre salad of a debut, 1984's She's So Unusual, Lauper has mostly gotten away with fusing disparate styles. With the critically well-received The Body Acoustic, the singer-songwriter shows she's still willing to take artistic risks. And she still manages to pull them off most of the time.

"I've embraced these songs," says Lauper, calling from a tour stop in Philadelphia. She headlines the 9:30 Club in Washington tonight. The show is sold out.

"Recording these songs again was a great experience. The stripped-down way is the way to go. I got tired of hearing the synthetic stuff. The music was losing the human spirit."

Without the noisy synthesizers and bombastic programmed drums that marked the production style of Lauper's '80s heyday, her songs remain strong - lyrically and melodically engaging. On Body Acoustic, Lauper collaborated with Rick Chertoff, who oversaw the Grammy-winning, multi-platinum She's So Unusual. The performer also invited artists from various genres to join her on the album: reggae star Shaggy, pop star Sarah McLachlan, maverick singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, R&B vocalist Vivian Green.

"I enjoyed working with other artists," Lauper says. "I got a sense of their rhythm. I thought it was great. We sat around and played live. You don't get a chance to do that much these days."

Highlights on the album include a stomping, hand-claps-accented version of "Money Changes Everything" with Taking Back Sunday's Adam Lazzara harmonizing with Lauper on the chorus. "All Through the Night" receives a drastic re-interpretation. Opening with a flurry of Appalachian-like fiddles and Shaggy's quick, rhythmic lines, the song shifts to tender ballad mode before the beat kicks in. It's an unlikely combination of styles that somehow works. But it helps that "All Through the Night" is a solid song.

Same is true with "Time After Time," which has become something of a pop standard since Lauper recorded it 20 years ago. (Even Miles Davis released an instrumental version.) On Body Acoustic, she sings the ballad with McLachlan, who movingly conveys the yearning in the lyrics.

Perhaps the best track is the new take on "She Bop," Lauper's hit ode to self-pleasure.

"It's like a folk, Velvet Underground feel," she says of the moody, slowed-down version. "I never thought I could do the song like that. Holy Cow! This thing works. It reverberates its own feeling, which is what you hope for in a song."

The only misfire is the fluffy, carnival-like version of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," with Japanese pop duo Puffy Ami Yumi.

"We had a party," Lauper says about making her new album. "It kind of all fell together. We weren't afraid to try anything."

This more organic musical approach was also explored on 2003's At Last, a covers album. That record and Body Acoustic brilliantly showcase Lauper's thrilling voice, something her flamboyant, larger-than-life persona overshadowed in the 1980s. With the stripped-down arrangements, it booms out more. But these days, Lauper, trim and vibrant, is a more assured vocalist.

"If you came to a concert, you could tell that I could sing," says the artist, who's based in New York. "But I exercise. I do yoga. My body's my instrument. The stronger my instrument, the stronger my voice, you know. I got to take care of it."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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