For the past few years, Cyndi Lauper has used her studio albums to play around with different genres, moving away from the New Wave-influenced pop that made her a star in the 1980s. Since 2003, the singer-songwriter has released a string of albums that had her experiment with styles of different styles of music: At Last had Lauper dip her toe into the American songbook; Bring Ya to the Brink recast Lauper as a disco diva; and Memphis Blues gave the singer an opportunity to demonstrate her blues chops.
With Detour, Cyndi Lauper yet again tries on a different musical persona: this time it’s country diva. For some the Queens-reared Lauper with her infectious Queens squawk may seem an ill fit for country music. But one thing we know by now is that Lauper is a serious talent – the woman can sing anything.
And for her country music debut, Lauper assembled a collection of country-western standards, instead of opting for the more-predictable choice of getting a batch of new songs written for her. The breadth of the music here is impressive: she takes on Wanda Jackson, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Skeeter Davis, and Dolly Parton, among others.
“Funnel of Love” is a perfect opener. The original by Wanda Jackson is a rock-a-billy classic with a raspy, sassy vocal performance. Lauper has always flirted with rock-a-billy (her band Blue Angel was heavily-influenced by rock-a-billy), and so the choice is fantastic. Mimicking some of the original song’s strangeness, Lauper also injects some of her eccentric persona into the song (she punctuates some of the verses with her patented vocal hiccups). The band behind her create a sympathetic and credible background for her to vamp.
Joining country icon Emmylou Harris, Lauper takes the swinging “Detour” and makes it her own. Harris may seem like a strange companion for Lauper, as her singing style – crystalline, ethereal, wounded – clashes with Lauper’s idiosyncratic style, but it somehow manages to work. They don’t attempt anything close to harmony, but Harris does some of her most forceful singing, and though the song feels like a novelty, it works in spite of itself. When paired with another legend, Willie Nelson, Lauper unintentionally steamrolls over his more laid back, conversational vocals with her showy belt and the song feels awkward and rushed.
“Misty Blue” is a lovely waltz that allows for Lauper to tug at her listeners heartstrings, something she does beautifully. “The End of the World” is a highlight – not surprisignly, since the original owed more to pop than country. And few can convey yearning the way Lauper can, especially when she stretches a note and her voice shifts and creaks into a heartbreaking crack. “Begging to You” with its gorgeous steel guitar, gives Lauper the opportunity to play the role of the heartbroken chanteuse, which she does superbly. Listeners will marvel as she does an incredible job of mimicking Patsy Cline on “I Fall to Pieces” – at times it’s eerie how close the sounds to the country legend. And when she joins Alison Krauss on Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” she indulges in some heart-stopping vocal riffs – it’s a sad song, one of Parton’s saddest, and Krauss’ angelic twill matches well with Lauper’s more forceful voice. Given that Lauper’s forte is singing about bruised hearts and sad times, “Hard Candy Christmas” fits her like a glove, and it’s only a wonder why she took so long to cover it.
As good as Detour is, there are moments when the album’s good intentions collapse under the weight of Lauper’s kooky persona. “Walkin’ After Midnight” is a misfire, Lauper’s campy persona clashing with the song, that benefited from Cline’s husky phrasing. “Heartaches by the Number” is another exercise in what feels like a joke – a preternaturally-talented singer who planted herself on stage at some honky tonk and is condescending the audience with some C&W drag. And “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” feels like silly filler.
It’s when she takes on an intentionally-funny song like “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” that Lauper’s outsider persona works best, because the song itself is a bit of a weirdo. The song – a country version of The Lockhorns – is a duel between a married couple who rag on each, but love each other, in spite of their mutual hideousness. The original was sung by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, and included a great spoken verse that had the two snipe at each with Lynn sniffing that she looked like a movie star, to which Twitty retorted, “Ruth Buzzi” (a cruel joke, given that Buzzi was pretty). In Detour, Lauper spars with Vince Gill and do a bang up job – and thankfully, the spoken verse on their version doesn’t go after a contemporary female celebrity, and instead, the two riff, aping something more akin to Al and Peg Bundy from Married….with Children.
So while her country record doesn’t signal a new direction for her, it does show a solid skill for interpreting any kind of material. Her fine renditions won’t make listeners forget about the originals, but they may introduce curious Lauper fans to classic country music.