Being a mainstream female pop singer is perhaps not quite as straightforward as it used to be, and even less so if you’re in the more advanced stages of your career. Ever since the likes of Cher and Kylie signalled changes of musical direction by embracing the vocoder and disco rhythms respectively, it’s become somewhat the norm for the leading ladies of pop to implement a metamorphosis of sound. It could even be argued that it’s now considered not only the norm but expected; these women can often be heard in interviews remarking on the need or desire to show their ‘real selves’ in an effort not to stagnate. Of course, there are those artists who simply enjoy trying something new, and, judging by Memphis Blues – and, indeed, its dance-pop predecessor Bring Ya To The Brink – Cyndi Lauper fits this description well.
Chances are the mere mention of Lauper’s name is enough to summon up memories of bad karaoke renditions of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ (as well as that unmistakable voice with its swooping upper register), so the notion of her producing a blues record, especially so comparatively late in her career, may seem alien. That the album features some of the big names in the blues scene might just be a subtle indication that she wasn’t about to take the project on without proven backup. However, the heavyweight likes of BB King, Ann Peebles, Charlie Musselwhite and Allen Toussaint are not enough to disguise the uncomfortable conclusion one reaches at the close of Memphis Blues – Lauper’s voice is simply not suited to this music.
Too often this fact is all too plain, a prime example being album opener ‘Just Your Fool’; here, Lauper’s delivery sounds unsure at times and anything but bluesy as it duels with, and is completely vanquished by, Musselwhite’s rollicking harmonica. The swaying, upbeat ‘Early In The Morning’, featuring both King and Toussaint, is full of fun and quirky charm, proving much more aligned to Lauper’s voice, while the impassioned ‘Romance In The Dark’ is exactly that. However, the few convincing moments are more than equalled by the less convincing ones, and ‘How Blue Can You Get?’ is certainly one of the latter; Lauper never really seems to relish the lyric, and offers restraint on words and syllables which seem to beg to be drawn out.
Meanwhile, on ‘Rollin’ & Tumblin’, Lauper’s vocal weakness is emphasised as she is outdone by the much more impressive Ann Peebles, whose smoky, ragged delivery does much greater justice to the slick guitar work and honky-tonk piano backing, while to pull off any rendition of Robert Johnson’s classic and oft-covered ‘Crossroads’ would require a radically different treatment – a tall order given the number of times it’s been done already, and one which Lauper and company fail to match. They fare much better on the energetic ‘Don’t Cry No More’, which is more gospel and soul infused than blues, and perfectly complements Lauper’s bouncy delivery.
A decidedly shaky effort all told, Memphis Blues finds Lauper struggling to get on top of many of the more languid, bluesy numbers; blues is a genre which really rewards those who don’t just sing it or listen to it, but feel it. Still, she should take some credit for going where many others fear to tread – the blues is not the easiest musical style to tackle, and you can’t help but think Lauper comes out of this experiment much better than many of her peers would.
[Downtown; September 20, 2010]