Monday, August 23, 2010

Return & Reissue: Cyndi Lauper's Memphis Blues/Martha & the Muffins' Danseparc

Pop singer Cyndi Lauper is trying to reinvent herself on Memphis Blues, a first-rate collection of blues standards, which is dedicated to blues great Ma Rainey. As usual with Lauper, though, she never takes herself too seriously. You get the impression listening to this record that she’s not so much interested in feeling the blues as she is in presenting herself as some kind of cabaret night club act. The images in the cover booklet certainly point in that direction. Ironically, Lauper has always had the vocal chops to perform this music earnestly and with conviction. This is particularly true on “Romance in the Dark”: a sexy interpretation with just a tinge of sadness. The musicians on this record do inspire Lauper to free herself of any pretense on these songs. On the tracks with pianist Allen Toussaint and guitarist Jonny Lang, the restraint is removed and Lauper is free to carry the lyrics as far as she wants. Alas, that’s not always the case on Memphis Blues, with the notable exception of “ Down So Low.” It’s the strongest track on the record because of the horn arrangement and Lauper’s solid vocal. The album closes with Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” and it’s a valiant duet with Jonny Lang but it rings false for me because it imitates the blues rather than lives it.

Out of print for many years, the re-issue of Danseparc by Martha & the Muffins is a welcome return to the catalogue. Produced by Daniel Lanois with Mark Gane and Martha Johnson, this album features all of the sonic values of the now famous producer without the clutter. This is a record of well-crafted pop songs in the true sense of the word, something many critics and fans mistook for being light and frivolous. On the contrary, this record has all the mystery and sexual tension of a dance club where young men and women size each other up on the floor. Most of these songs, like "Several Styles of Blonde Girls Dancing," are about how dance is a tribal ritual where men and women relate to one another (“Watch you move is like sensing the scheme of things pushing apart at the seams/Your gesture is knocking a hole in the air!”). Other songs, such as the title track, contemplate the future in a fearful way (“Every day it’s tomorrow and I never know what tomorrow will be/Everyday it’s tomorrow and to dance with you is all I need”). I’ve always liked the personal/observer approach that Mark Gane and Martha Johnson use in writing songs with a punk angst but also with an intelligent, earthy design. This album combines substantive lyrics and stories with interesting, slightly experimental music. The remastering on this record serves to refine the tracks rather than “improve them sonically.” Consequently, the songs are less “tinny” and feature more mid-range and bottom end. Unlike much of the synth-pop music of the 80s, M + M wasn’t afraid to let the guitar sound like a guitar rather than a synthesizer, an unfortunate popular diversion during this decade.

The disc features three bonus tracks, a B-side ("These Dangerous Things") to the extended 12-inch of Danseparc, plus a live performance of "Sins Of The Children" recorded  in 1983 at  the Ontario Place Forum in Toronto. I had the privilege of working there and caught that show. As I recall, it was a strong performance in front of an enthusiastic audience, so I hope there’s more from that show to be heard from in the future.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, writer, actor and theatre director.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks John for an intelligent and positive review of the reissue of 'Danseparc'. Martha Johnson