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The years prior to Bring Ya To The Brink's 2008 release saw nutty-in-a-good-way American pop singer Cyndi Lauper busying herself in a catalogue of curios; including a collection of covers, a sadly-overlooked, Japan-only studio album called Shine, and a record acoustically reimagining her past glories, in which she teamed up with a host of stars from the new millennium.
In other words, the type of output one might be happy to work on after their creative juices have been sated and are content to while away the years giving memory to their halcyon days. It may have looked that way at least, but with Bring Ya To The Brink, Lauper was plotting a means of dragging her sound into the 21st Century. The result is just about the most ambitious album she's ever recorded.
And though it's far from perfect, the album is a fine achievement. What's impressive is that Lauper's free-spirit attitude to music making has meant she hasn't followed industry trends for more than twenty years, yet at the age of 55, her resurfacing proved a convincing and full-blooded attempt at a contemporary dance-pop/club sound. If your abiding memory is that of a rainbow-haired ragamuffin in "Girls Just Want To Have Fun", then you're looking at a very different animal here.
"High And Mighty" signals her intent from the get-go, summing-up the album's general plan of attack. It's a simplistic, repetitive and beat-driven affair, where the bobbing tempo is as much dictated by vocal repetition as the skewed guitars. It never quite bursts into life in the manner you feel it might, but the hum 'n' thrum nature proves thoroughly invasive, and is guaranteed to get planted in your head. It's an encouraging warm-up for things to come.
Typically, Cyndi Lauper's intros haven't been associated with the kind of throbbing, dance vacuum that could blow your speakers to bits given half a chance; but that's exactly what the excellent "Into The Nightlife" achieves, and it's an immaculate club track that doesn't miss a beat. As with the equally stomping "Echo", Brink works best when it realises the strength and variety of Lauper's voice, whether she's blithely purring her way through verses or using the brunt of her rasping vocal range in the choruses.
The general tone of the record is a little detached, and this is harmful to an artist such as Lauper as it means her quirky, creative side becomes somewhat blanketed under the heavy production. But whilst the album lacks a defining blast of power-pop in the mould of "I Drove All Night" or even a poignant, big ballad like "True Colors" or her sadly-overlooked "Sally's Pigeons", it still feels effortlessly accomplished.
Hearing Cyndi Lauper rattle off a whopping 26 "F-bombs" in the venomous yet gleefully enjoyable "Same Ol' Story" is certainly a new experience. Putting aside the fact it's a complete expletive-fest, it offers a deeper message and packs a good melody, even if the instrumentation is slightly less punchy than on those that preceded it. As well as highlighting a culture of greed (possibly within the music business), her claims there's "still some glory in my eyes/much to everyone's surprise" makes needling reference to pop music's ageism stigma. This also manifests itself in more light-hearted, witty terms on "Rocking Chair", in which oddball lyrics ("A.D.D. salamanders/cannot figure what to wear"), zany up-tempo loops and the addition of flamboyant backing vocals make it feel as though it's channelling the spirit of the lovably wacky "Yeah Yeah" from her She's So Unusual heyday.
If anything, it almost becomes too easy for Lauper. Vocally, she's instantly attuned to the monster dance melodies that dominate the early phases, to such an extent that it's easy to envisage it as her natural musical habitat. But without ever coming completely undone, the record loses bite. Lauper seems content with her lot; and instead of building on her burgeoning strengths, settles on a succession of solid but unadventurous dance-pop variants thereafter.
Ironically, it's the moments that are normally the New Yorker's bread-and-butter that ultimately let Bring Ya To The Brink down. For example, the closing song "Rain On Me" is just about the only track to stray anywhere near ballad territory, yet it fails to capture the imagination. "Lyfe" and "Raging Storm" offer a rare glimpse of topical writing; an outlet for Lauper's articulate and pleasantly quirky musings to finally shine through, though neither quite come off. The former is let down by slow and derivative percussion that's the fixture of a million hip-hop records, and an unnecessary attempt at spoken-word rap further curb its endeavours. The latter is unusually listless sounding and lacks the artist's usual vim. The track ends up feeling like a turn of the millennium Ibiza cast-off, with a stagnant chorus ("there's a raging storm in a troubled sea/but you're clouding my mind with celebrity") and an uninspired trawl of the old celebrity-vs-reality trope.
Reverting back to the dance-pop formula in the latter stages sees nothing outstanding, but lots of catchy hooks. Both "Lay Me Down" and "Grab A Hold" are wonderful, feel-good track thanks to rousing, ascending accompaniments and in the case of the latter, proves further testament to the artist's mega voice, powering through a really sparky ditty, with the icing on the cake being a belting chorus, brimming with power-pop spirit. The psychedelic blips 'n' bops of "Give It Up" provide further fun even if this particular attention-grabber lacks a big chorus to really capture the imagination.
It doesn't all work though. "Set Your Heart" launches an assault on the ears late on with a near-unceasing barrage of long notes, trumpets and general campness, and for all its noise, ends up sounding a little generic and uninteresting. Still, Bring Ya To The Brink has many notable moments, and provided your ears are willing to make the leap, you'll find a strikingly different Cyndi Lauper pulling off more smart melodies and hugely impressive vocal performances, though some will bemoan the smothering of a personality eclectic enough to make her mark on any project. It may not sit comfortably with long-term fans, but regardless, Bring Ya To The Brink is a good endeavour.
Echo; Into The Nightlife
Into The Nightlife:
"Got this endless itch to ride, into the night/
Fortune cookie says I'm right, Kung Fu like"
Tracklist: 1. Where Are All My Friends 2. High And Mighty 3. Into The Nightlife 4. Rocking Chair 5. Echo 6. Lyfe 7. Same Ol' Story 8. Raging Storm 9. Lay Me Down 10. Give It Up 11. Set Your Heart 12. Grab A Hold 13. Rain On Me