CD reviews: Cyndi, Rihanna

HMO050916CYNDICyndi Lauper, Detour. Girls just want to have… a country album? If you’re Cyndi Lauper and your repertoire is as delightfully ADHD as hers — the American Songbook, pop ear-candy, the blues, a damn musical (she won a Tony for Kinky Boots) — the next “logical step” is, well, inevitably illogical. But hearing the “Time After Time” singer channel good ol’ honky-tonk alongside a mélange of veterans isn’t so unusual after all; in fact, Lauper sings this collection of country classics as if she never even turned the pop world upside down three decades ago with a string of bubbly hits and timeless power ballads.

She did, of course, but on Detour, she sinks her cowboy boots so far into Nashville soil it’s hard to believe this is the same Cyndi whose polished pop songs continue to abide under the disco glow of the gay clubs. Even so, Cyndi’s personality and charisma is intact, from the yelpy runs on Guy Mitchell’s 1959 No. 1 single “Heartaches by the Numbers” to the husband-and-wife razzing she and Vince Gill partake in on “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” Lauper’s version of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” is a staggering achievement. Just listen to the way Lauper enters the track, her voice low and husky and, through and through, divine; yes, hand over the Best Female Country Vocal Grammy right now. Skeeter Davis’ 1963 hit “End of the World” also gets a lovely Lauper reading as well. That quiver near the end? Ah, nice touch. Though the singer recently confirmed that she’s working on another Broadway musical, let’s hope she laces up her cowgirl boots and takes another detour as radical and rich as this. Four stars.

HMO050916RIHANNARihanna, ANTI. Rihanna can sing. Soar and dip and drop — she’s no Adele (because who is?) but when the unassuming Barbadian pop princess commits herself, it’s a magical awakening. So if creative differences are the reason behind RiRi’s decision to split with longtime label Def Jam (she’s now with Jay Z’s Roc Nation), going in for the vocal kill, as she does on “Love on the Brain,” is the best kind of record-label retribution. The swaying slowie is refreshingly not-Rihanna, unless you’ve envisioned that Ri’s time offstage is spent belting Etta James’ classics.

That’s what this soul throwback resembles, after all. Her fluttery voice is dramatic and full, and she slays every syllable, channeling her inner vocal goddess. ANTI, the “Umbrella” singer’s surprise drop, then, resists the Rihanna we knew, the one who wasn’t known for the kind of avant-garde, Beyoncé-like wildcard that ANTI is. Let her pointedly remind you that she, too, can dig deep and pour her innermost feelings all over a solo piano, which she does on “Close to You.” Listen as she lashes out at an ex-beau, which she does atop the slinky grind of “Needed Me.” Yes, like 2009’s head-turner Rated R, Rihanna excels when she challenges not just herself but those who expect the superficiality of her baity-and-sometimes-bland singles, from “S&M” (bland) to “We Found Love” (not bland). That’s not to say that now, eight albums in, Rihanna is getting everything right (that grating Drake collaboration, “Work,” is a bust), but her persona-altering diversions are less eager to please and more eager to be everything you thought she couldn’t be. Three stars.

— Chris Azzopardi

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

SOUND BITES: Kelly and Christina are back on disc

Kelly Clarkson, Greatest Hits: Chapter One.  It’s telling that Kelly Clarkson tacks her very first single at the end of the album like a footnote: “A Moment Like This” shot the singer into superstardom after it became her winning American Idol anthem. You can still hear the joy in the North Texan sweetheart’s voice, and you can practically see the tears coming out of those clichés.

Now that she’s been singing infinitely better songs, she’s not looking back at that ditty with the same joyful regard (even Clarkson’s knocked the cheese ball herself). But, for better or worse, it made her a household name, even if it never defined her as an artist. Clarkson was too feisty — too good — for a song like that. “Breakaway,” setting the stage for her power-pop makeover, would become her first major hit, and boy, did it ever. Between then and now she’d record the coveted 2004 kiss-off “Since U Been Gone,” and its doppelgängers, “My Life Would Suck Without You” and “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” — all included among the 17 tracks, with only one from My December (whew!). Though her biggest hits are sound giants, this collection, which includes two of her best ballads, gives a fuller perspective of the talented pop star. The new songs represent an artist capable of almost anything: She goes country for “Don’t Rush” and does the juggernaut “People Like Us,” where she leads an army of underdogs (“the lost and forgotten”) into a fierce battle cry. Of all the things she’s accomplished in 10 years, it’s about time we got a gay anthem.

Christina Aguilera, LotusChristina Aguilera opens her seventh album by calling this a “rebirth” despite her “broken pieces” — in other words, a really bad few years (last album, tabloids and Burlesque). After spending much of her career doing what she’s so good at (using her voice like it’s a moon rocket) the pop singer, who got a profile-boost from The Voice, was sick of sitting in Lady Gaga’s shadow: Xtina wanted something different — something Bionic. That album, released two years ago, was a massive sound-bomb, not just commercially but creatively — who’s the dummy that thought Auto-Tuning one of the best voices ever was a good idea?

Lesson learned: Aguilera rips through these songs with all the superpower of a tsunami, sweeping up everything in its path … even Mother Monster. She slays “Your Body,” the sexy first single, as hard as she does the guys in its cartoonish video; “Army of Me” has her in Kill Bill mode, referencing herself as the “Fighter” she was in 2003, at the height of her career; and “Let There Be Love” is a glorious club smash that could be about world peace … except it’s mostly about makeup sex. Along with the Sia-written “Blank Page” — a decent tune made exponentially better by Christina’s heartfelt, powerhouse performance — those are the highlights on an album that never finds the same cohesive groove of her best work, Back to Basics and Stripped, but thankfully never gets as out-of-character as Bionic. Let Gaga be weird. You just sing, girl.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones