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Lauper's latest: Kind of blues

By James Reed
Globe Staff / June 20, 2010

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Cyndi Lauper’s new album reminds me of an old “Far Side’’ cartoon in which Gary Larson portrayed a well-to-do couple sitting in the parlor of their ornate mansion. Under a chandelier, a woman draped in pearls looks up from her book and calls out to a man at the piano: “Why don’t you play some blues, Andrew?’’

The punch line, of course, is that they don’t have a right to sing the blues. I’m not suggesting that Lauper, the ’80s icon who has been an indelible force in pop music ever since, shouldn’t have recorded “Memphis Blues,’’ her new album out on Tuesday. I will say it’s the kind of record that never transcends the good intentions that inspired her to make it.

Lauper has some heavy hitters on board — B.B. King, Allen Toussaint, Charlie Musselwhite, and Ann Peebles — but their blues credibility only undermines hers. It doesn’t help that the songs, which Lauper claims were mostly recorded live and left intact to retain the spirit of the sessions, bring out the more grating aspects of her voice. As the name of her debut trumpeted, Lauper’s so unusual here, but for once that’s not a compliment.

For better or worse, Lauper’s creative restlessness has been one of the real pleasures of her career over the past decade. In addition to her work promoting gay rights with the True Colors Tour, Lauper has followed her muse down all sorts of rabbit holes.

She reinvented herself as a supper-club singer on 2003’s “At Last,’’ and two years later she revisited her hits with stripped-down renditions and special guests on “The Body Acoustic.’’ The next U-turn was 2008’s “Bring Ya to the Brink,’’ a collection of glossy dance pop that went largely unnoticed despite some catchy club anthems.

Of all her detours, “Memphis Blues’’ feels the most misguided. It’s a pet project, and might actually sound terrific if rendered live in a cozy jazz joint. (Sadly, the House of Blues, where Lauper will perform on Saturday, is not that.) Lauper obviously loves this music, but that admiration teeters on timidity in so many of her performances.

That’s not meant to discredit the superb session musicians who rescue “Memphis Blues’’ from parody. Lauper’s taste in material is impeccable, too, focusing mostly on lesser-known gems (“Shattered Dreams,’’ the Bobby “Blue’’ Bland hit “Don’t Cry No More’’) and a few standards such as Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads.’’

Lauper tries to get down and dirty right out of the gate with “I’m Just Your Fool,’’ her voice strong but shrill while Musselwhite wails on harmonica behind her. She hams it up with King and Toussaint on “Early in the Mornin’,’’ sounding like a fizzy cocktail waitress who suddenly grabs the mike in between delivering trays of martinis.

The lights dim for “Romance in the Dark,’’ an after-hours barroom ballad that lets Lauper savor the lyrics as she punctuates the verses with kittenish giggles. “In the dark/ I get such a thrill/ When he puts his fingertips upon my lips/ And he begs me please, please be still/ In the dark,’’ she sings with shades of Rickie Lee Jones.

When Lauper breaks free of her expectations of a blues singer, she turns in some inspired performances. Ace guitarist Jonny Lang helps her give “Crossroads’’ a thoroughly modern edge, and Lauper and Peebles make a formidable funk duo on Muddy Waters’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.’’

Her passion is palpable, but Lauper never digs beneath the veneer of what the blues embody — longing, heartache, conviction. Treating it like a shiny new piece of jewelry, she tries on the blues persona but none of its pathos. Instead, she sounds like a famous pop star who’s spotted at a piano bar and coaxed onstage to entertain the closing-time crowd.

To riff on the title of another blues standard, Lauper’s got it bad — and that ain’t good.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.