What does it say about the music industry in the 21st century that so many former pop artists are embracing country music? So intertwined are these two formerly disparate market segments that there now seems to be little difference between contemporary country and pop/rock music. With each borrowing liberally from one another, it seems only logical that many former pop stars would try their hand at a country crossover. Where before country stars would occasionally try their hand at a career as a pop artist, the mainstream music industry has changed to the point the opposite is now true.
Following this line of thinking, Cyndi Lauper is the latest to cast her lot in with the country crowd on her latest, the knowingly titled – just take a look at the cover photo for proof – Detour. Who would have thought in 1983 that the Technicolor city girl on the cover of She’s So Unusual would one day make a country album? Having seemingly tried her hand at nearly every stylistic venture available in the intervening years, it seemed that country was the only mainstream area left to explore.
Long underappreciated as a vocalist, – she’s too often recognized more as a personality than the gifted performer she truly is – here Lauper nails the appropriate vocal affectation and twang largely without sounding contrived. In fact, she proves herself not only a competent country vocalist – hinting at what could have been had she gone this route originally – but also a masterful interpreter in the classic tradition of the best female country vocalists of the late-‘60s.
Fittingly, she takes on several staples from the era, some more successful than others. Her reading of “I Fall to Pieces” in particular finds her very nearly a dead ringer for Patsy Cline both in terms of timbre and phrasing. Were it not for a few telltale signs to the contrary, it would be difficult separating one from the other. Unfortunately her take on Skeeter Davis’ maudlin “End of the World” falls flat, her voice not entirely suited to the arrangement and, compared with the preceding “Heartache By the Numbers”, feels largely devoid of life. While the original wasn’t necessarily a barnburner, Davis’ reading had more emotional nuance. Lauper’s heavily accented take on the spoken word section doesn’t exactly help things either, her nasally Queens twang betraying her northern origins.
Throughout, she’s at her best when vocally unfettered and not beholden to a duet partner. “Begging to You” is a stellar Bakersfield-styled ballad shuffle that finds Lauper in fine voice, showing off the whole of her range complete wither soaring vibrato, emotional cracks in all the right places and a whispered hush. It’s one of Detour’s best moments and furthers the case for Lauper to have forgone duet partners in favor of a straight solo country record.
Perennial fan of oddball duet pairings Willie Nelson here sounds vocally checked out and utterly listless on his immortal classic, “Night Life”. Lauper’s sharper, enthusiastic delivery stands in stark contrast with Nelson’s brittle croak, causing the duet to fall apart at the seams despite her best efforts to the contrary. Similarly, Alison Krauss’ voice manages to get lost when set against Lauper’s strangely strident delivery. Generally able to hold her own – see her Grammy-winning Robert Plant duet album Raising Sand for proof of this – here she fades into the background, barely registering until the closing moments when that familiar voice comes to the fore and breathes life into an otherwise staid reading of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ “Hard Candy Christmas”.
And while fun, her duet with Vince Gill on “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” relies too much on hokey clichés and Lauper’s thick Queens accent during an extended outro skit that adds little to a take that was already in trouble from the get-go. The take away from all of this is that while she may be game for any number of duet partners, she’s at her best when unencumbered and allowed to show off the surprising strength of her versatile voice. Too often she relies on cloying schtick when paired with another singer. It’s an unfortunate distraction from an otherwise impressive set of solo performances.
That said, her duet with the consummate duet partner Emmylou Harris on the title track proves not only a success, but a surprisingly rewarding listening experience. Both unnervingly close in timbre, almost to the point of not being able to tell one from the other, their voices flow seamlessly together in a perfectly paired harmony. It’s the rare instance on Detour in which Lauper’s voice finds a capable sparring partner and the straight reading helps ensure it won’t fall into parody.
Not entirely successful yet not entirely without merit, Cyndi Lauper’s work on Detour is just that: a detour from the norm and an attempt at finding something new in something old. The material is there, as is the voice, but too often the two become muddled despite her best efforts to the contrary. If nothing else, Detour is a enjoyable glimpse into a career path untaken.
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