Longing and Glad
115 · 10 April 97
Cyndi Lauper: Sisters of Avalon
It would take an even more compulsive mind than mine to have actually compiled something as useless as a ranked list of feelings, and I'm not sure it's ever occurred to me until now that I might have a favorite feeling at all. But if I made the list tonight, here's what I would write by #1: "There is a way that a record can make me feel, given just the right spirit and context, that I would trade for nothing; a moment on the cusp between a desperate yearning you've studied so thoroughly that you can trace its contours on the tabletop like they were reflected there, and that wild burst of pride when you see joy in the eyes of something you love more than yourself; a single point on the emotional curve where you escape the gravity of existence, just fleetingly." Can people do this for each other? Can lovers, or children? Part of me wants fervently to believe that they can, that I'll someday feel this way about a real person, because attaching this much intense emotion to songs by people you'll never meet seems palpably pathetic. But then, on the other hand, I'm not entirely sure that yearning and awe are the right bases for a personal relationship with another human. Part of what makes it possible for me to react to records this way is that they cannot respond or recoil. Every time somebody drifts into a visionary reverie about interactive art, I see a CD about to dissimulate, compensate or blush. I don't want that. Art is one of the few areas of life where we can sustain the illusion that we are defying Heisenberg, able to study without influencing. It's a lot easier to trick yourself into thinking you're staring perfection in the eye if it doesn't blink.
Sisters of Avalon finds me in precisely the right initial-condition mixture of frustration, anticipation, dread and confidence from which the feeling can arise. I've been waiting for this album, really, for almost four years, ever since Cyndi's previous one, 1993's Hat Full of Stars, catapulted her from the ranks, in my mind, of people like Fiona, Patty Smyth and Pat Benatar -- not guilty pleasures, exactly, since I don't feel guilty about liking them, but singers, at least, that I enjoy more readily than I endorse -- into those of human angels like Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Jane Siberry and Sarah McLachlan. It was my choice, in fact, as the year's best album, above new records by Big Country, Kate and the Loud Family, three of my five favorite artists, and perhaps only people into whose souls High Fidelity sent a spectral chill of recognition will understand how much this gesture cost me. I'd liked Cyndi well enough before, even believing, in opposition to the prevailing critical consensus, that her first three albums got better as they went along, not worse, but in placing Hat Full of Stars ahead of Buffalo Skinners, The Red Shoes, Plants & Birds & Rocks & Things, When I Was a Boy and Gold Against the Soul I was asserting, if only to myself, my belief that it represented Cyndi's maturation from a dynamic interpreter and astute judge of material (noble enough skills themselves) into a Musician, in the truest artistic sense. The only instrument she's credited with on it is recorder, but making music is at its heart a creative process, not a physical one, and the album's integration of Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian's mainstream bombast, Junior Vasquez' hip-hop production, Allee Willis's old-fashioned songwriter's flair, Jeff Bova and Jimmy Bralower's pulsing synth programming, African backing vocals, dulcimers, mandolins, flugelhorns, Celtic reel and pop balladry is a feat of cultural dexterity that makes Graceland look snap-together, and although anybody could in fact have been responsible for it, I chose to believe Cyndi made the music what it was herself, and if I was right, it meant she was as good as anybody.
I believed that then, and I still do, but my terminal failing as a gambler is that I bet like a storyteller, not a mathematician (although here's a bonus prediction: "Semi-Charmed Life" will be this year's "Breakfast at Tiffany's"), and so Sisters of Avalon, if it didn't live up to its history, might have been the album that revealed this leap of faith to have been overestimation. A little more dread crept in when I read in advance reports (of which there were plenty, since the album came out months ago everywhere but the US) that the songs incorporated Euro-dance elements, though I was comforted by the recollection that reviews of Hat Full of Stars described it as nearly a hip-hop album, and I like hip-hop even less than Euro-dance. But some encouraging signs began trickling in, as well. Happening across a stray episode of The RuPaul Show on VH1 one evening, I caught Cyndi performing, with just a dulcimer for accompaniment, a breathtakingly fragile song called "Fearless". Her voice was a force of nature, she still had the world's best hair, and the fact that she'd actually learned to play an instrument while singing, even one as simple as a dulcimer, on which you need more training to hit wrong notes than you do to hit right ones, could only be a positive sign. A few weeks later, watching the credits to Unhook the Stars, smiling already because I enjoyed the film so much (that and Big Night have restored my faith in movie endings), I realized with a start that it was Cyndi singing the solemn, elegant theme song. I rushed to the store to find the soundtrack, but a little web research, after I failed to locate any such thing, revealed that that song, too, was destined for Sisters of Avalon. So either the album wasn't going to be 1,000 Fires after all, or else at least two songs had slipped through unharmed.
The album does open, though, its title track up first, with a chattering Euro-dance drum line. Not so techno that you reach for a stopwatch to decide which bin to shelve it in, but a calculated loop all the same, simmering with trebly noises and little blips the way everybody's has ever since somebody finally made a sampler that didn't pixelate the sense out of everything above middle C. A heyaahey chorus echoes the recent remixes of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun", and for a breath I think this really is all going to turn out badly, but then a lithe bass rumble enters, piano chords chime quietly, Cyndi starts singing, and I know everything is going to be okay. By the time the song is done we've heard guitars wail and wah, drums rattle under human hands, Cyndi take a howling blues break that should keep Joan Osborne nervous, and the song transformed into something dancing in the courtyard between "Rubberband Girl", "Jump in the River" and "The Way It Is". As the song ends, Cyndi's invocation of spirits dying away into a whisper, a tiny screech emerges from the mix, half modem-transmission and half radio-static, and as I realize that it's been there all along, muttering in the background of the song, I decide that Cyndi is quite capable of molding any style to her own will, and I should stop worrying.
"Ballad of Cleo & Joe" starts off even more firmly in dance suspension, burbling synth-bass arpeggios strung between busy drum loops and whirring ambient flanging, but a bizarre upper-register duel between mutant accordion, sine-wave synth and what sounds like an Indian cobra hypnotism performed by a hyperactive oscilloscope keeps intruding where some strategic samples probably ought to be, and Cyndi blazes through a bluesy, heavily compressed and thoughtfully sympathetic transvestite character study that is neither the timbre nor the material of dance filler. Her RuPaul appearance, actually, ended with this song playing appropriately over the credits, and while the character in the song fights with his insecurities in a way that RuPaul, at least in public, never does, nobody on the set seemed to have told RuPaul what the song was about, and his un-self-conscious and unaware dancing, precisely where he should have been self-conscious and aware (especially with Cyndi cavorting diminutively beside him for scale reference), ended up revealing something of the person underneath, after all.
The dance strobe shuts off entirely for the wistful lullaby "Fall Into Your Dreams", the album's closest approach to a mainstream ballad. The verses toy with Madonna-esque sentimentality, but a round, melancholy synth-bass tone purrs solidly throughout, violin rescues what could have been a saccharine saxophone part, some braying-elephant synth interjections punctuate the swelling choruses, at several points it sounds like there's somebody typing in the background, and Cyndi's voice makes a baby-talk backing vocal babble, which sounds like a terrible idea, turn out more like a breathy and sinister foreign language than affectionate gibberish.
Majestically spare church-organ notes intone the intro of "You Don't Know", the album's first single, Cyndi's voice on the opening chorus echoing into the imagined cathedral. The body of the song replaces this setting with a clicking drum loop, pealing siturn (a cross between a sitar and a cistern?), squalling guitar and an elastic bass line. Cyndi rarely lets her composure crack, making this a little more like "A Night to Remember" than "Money Changes Everything", but her thick, squeaky accent, which seeps in around every edge of her otherwise beautiful and controlled performances, is a constant reminder of her presence, and to me her voice, with its fearless flashes from graceful to guttural, is at its most vital when the music behind her is at its most mechanical for contrast.
The calm facade crumbles a bit for the pounding "Love to Hate", a monster-blues stomp driven by viciously gated drums, ragged guitar and surging bass. Cyndi does her best impersonation of punk shrieking at several points here, but my favorite parts are the one in the middle where her yelps seem to trail off across the room like she got caught up in the excitement and forgot stay in front of the microphone, and at the end where the instruments fade out while she tries to catch her breath. The lyrics, an odd table-leveling exercise in mutual disdain, snap at precisely RuPaul's sort of superficial, judgmental, fashion-centric culture, but I'm guessing he wouldn't like the song anyway. For a contrast in mood, both musically and vocally, Cyndi's trademark warble is rendered almost unidentifiable by the intimate recording of her even tempered performance of the gentle, pretty "Hot Gets a Little Cold", a song that's so close to the Psychedelic Furs' "Heaven" that at several points I swear they're quoting it intentionally. Catherine Russell, the song's co-writer, also provides assorted backing vocals, which at times pass through so much processing that it sounds like someone has accidentally opened an air vent in the recording booth that connects to an airplane hanger where Aimee Mann happens to be rehearsing. A variety of acoustic instruments twinkle around the borders of the central guitar part, and at one point I think I even hear an omnichord, one of the few instruments even easier to play than a dulcimer.
More zithers (or slide dulcimers or whatever they are) and some horns glitter through the measured waltz of "Unhook the Stars", which probably isn't the first song to use a grittily sampled drum loop in 3/4, but I can't think of any others offhand. Without the loop the song might resemble "Time After Time" or "True Colors", but the drums turn it into more of a meditation than a lament, a transformation with which the distracted hummed fadeout is in keeping. The song is also a more cogent explanation of the film's title than anything that actually takes place in it, but it does recapitulate most of the film's emotional plot, so I don't recommend reading the lyrics too closely until after you've seen the movie. The moody, drifting "Searching", with its blunt electronic drums, churning bass, complicated vocal delays and reassemblies, fragmented synth hooks and flown-in sprinklings of acoustic guitar, sounds like it might be a preemptive strike, Cyndi and album co-writer/co-producer Jan Pulsford hoping to frighten off the drum-and-bass remixers who plague Everything but the Girl by showing them a song that already sounds like it's been remixed from something. And "Say a Prayer", with its finger-snaps, wispy drum-machine groove, mock-string-swells, spoken verses and smoky torch-song-scat choruses, is nearly straight-ahead R&B, the spell only broken by the abrupt organ entrances and exits, a piano part that sounds like somebody trying to work out what the notes are going to be with the idea of fitting them better into the song's cadence later, and some tricky vocal processing that has Cyndi whispering "It can fill your cup with regret" into a microphone in the verses, and cooing in an entirely different room for the choruses.
If the album seems to have wandered into a stylistic cul-de-sac with "Say a Prayer", though, the tense "Mother" quickly extracts it. Throbbing bass, rumbling drums, scattered world-beat percussion, accordion, a Japanese banjo and some choppy pan-flute-sounding thing (or do you play Japanese banjos by blowing on them somehow?) fill a bustling arrangement over which Cyndi sings a mesmerizing lead with a marked Kate Bush-like character, the comparison encouraged by how much the Yma Sumac samples used as backing vocals resemble the Trio Bulgarka backing parts on Kate's The Sensual World. It is in a half-trance state, then, that the album finally reaches the awesome hush of "Fearless", and it is here, somewhere in the first minute of the song, where that feeling I think might be my favorite hits me. The version here isn't just dulcimer, but even with keyboards, a "Tennessee music box", a scattering of percussion and a rainstorm, the music is still little more than atmospheric ambience for Cyndi's hauntingly small and slightly afraid performance of a song about being small and slightly afraid. "But if I was fearless," she asks, "Could I be your reckless friend?" And somewhere in this vulnerability, in this idea that part of the reason she's able to make this music, the melody outlining her magic while the words sketch her doubts, part of the reason anybody's ever able to do anything, is that they're also scared, is a bit of even rawer honesty than I'd thought to hope for, and in an instant I know that I have underestimated her, not overestimated, and I am overcome with a fierce and irrational pride, as if somehow my confidence in her is part of what has given her the strength to transcend herself. And as pathetic and misguided as this thought is, the record must sense how important it is to me, and it has the immeasurable decency to indulge me without a reproach.
It ought to also, by all rights, end there. The pace and rhythm of the album strongly imply that we have reached a musical and emotional conclusion, and the sensible thing, then, would be to conclude. But in fact, there's one song more. What's worse, it's a mood shift on approximately the same order as Bugs Bunny popping, carrot and perennial query in hand, up out of the desert sand at the feet of Almasy as he's carrying Katherine's body out of the cave. If you can stomach the non sequitur, though, the song itself, "Brimstone and Fire", is a goofy classic, an exuberantly bouncy and hilarious pop gem in which the narrator tries to disentangle the loneliness and trepidation that make up her ambivalence about being the subject of another woman's crush. The music is all wheezy synth-accordions and bubblegum-reggae guitar stabs, perhaps the closest Cyndi has come to the impish glee of her debut album since. "Now we have dinner every Saturday; / I make spaghetti, she brings cake. / I make spaghetti with tomato sauce, / Because that's all I can make". This, too, is pathetic and misguided. But so many good things are.