From the moment we first saw her - making crazy eyes at paternal foil Captain Lou Albano in the Girls Just Want to Have Fun video - Cyndi Lauper was one of pop culture's most sly feminists. Through comedy and verve came pop and politics: She Bop let girls know that onanistic fantasies weren't just for the Porky's gang; the ballad True Colors made her a gay icon, too. She battled pro wrestlers, fought for civil liberties. Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper, 5-foot-3 and indefatigable.
Now 57 and bleached Baywatch blond, the spritely New Yawker doesn't have much time for the radio these days. Her new album, released this week, is an analog-rustic collection of old gutbucket howlers called Memphis Blues. Despite its lack of commercial sheen, however, it's still much a Lauper endeavour: Girls Just Wanna Get Low, Too.
She surrounds herself with mostly male blues giants: B.B. King, Jonny Lang, Allen Toussaint, although Memphis soul staple Ann Peebles helps out, too. Lauper tackles songs originally written from a macho point of view: Muddy Waters' Rollin' and Tumblin', Robert Johnson's Crossroads. Charmingly, lustfully, she takes the canon and flips it, the lady in charge of the lads. Now who's got the moonshine?
Setting up in Memphis's Electraphonic Recording studio, and with a who's-who of session players firing live around her, Lauper calls out the arrangements on the fly. It sounds rough, beautifully musty, like a crate of old Stax albums discovered in the corner of your basement.
The 11-track, 45-minute gem opens with Just Your Fool, in which Lauper's inimitable voice dukes it out with the brawny mouth harp of Memphis' own Charlie Musselwhite. There's still that Kewpie doll curl to Lauper's vocals, but you forget how she can quickly switch to a full-throttle midrange that cyclonically blows your hair back. It's a cutthroat tactic, seduce and destroy. In other words, be careful who you're calling "Kewpie doll."
Musselwhite continues to play romantic counterpart to Lauper, as do the old Stax Records combo of Skip Pitts and Lester Snell, on guitar and keyboards respectively. New Orleans pianist Toussaint heads northeast to join Lauper on such cuts as the torcher Shattered Dreams and the shaggy Mother Earth. You can tell they're in love, too.
But Lauper, who will bring all her blues to Ruth Eckerd Hall on Aug. 4, generates the most high heat with the guitar stars: King and Lang. They push her, she pushes back and you can feel the sweat sopping. With Toussaint laying down the groove, B.B. and his new lady love duck and weave all over the utterly rambunctious Early in the Morning. At 84, the Beale Street Blues Boy can still roar.
With his guitar fuzzed to a roadhouse crunch, Lang helps Lauper end the album with a slow-building take on Johnson's Crossroads. They eye each other, stalk each other, Lang's picking growing frenetic, agitated, furious. But this is the lady's show, of course, and her final vocal turn seals the deal. After all, when Cyndi Lauper goes down to the Crossroads, even the devil knows he's beat.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.
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Cyndi Lauper, Memphis Blues (Downtown)
SEAN DALY'S POP LIFE: In today's Floridian section, our music critic helps out a reader who desperately needs a playlist - for the delivery room.