Cyndi Lauper — Sisters of Avalon | Review
I think nearly everyone is familiar Cyndi Lauper’s music. To say that her songs “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, “Time After Time”, and “True Colors” are quintessential 80s songs is no stretch. Her song “She Bop”, which coyly discussed female masturbation, set conservatives ablaze at the time. The PRMC would put the song on their list of the filthy fifteen songs which started the parential advisory stickers. It’s laughable today. Aside from these tracks, and maybe the songs “All Through the Night” and “Money Changes Everything”, Lauper falls off the radar for many as just an 80s artist. She has only continued to hone her sound and songwriting skills since those first two records. Her 1993 album, Hat Full of Stars, would take her into a more alternative sound. She would also tackle more diverse issues such as racism, abortion, homophobia, and domestic abuse. Similar to Madonna, Cyndi has been a champion for LGBTQ+ rights throughout her career and her out spoken nature on these topics is shown from her 1993 album and much more on her follow up album, Sisters of Avalon. The 1996 album introduces Lauper’s dulcimer playing. She also wields the bass recorder, guitar, zither, and omnichord on the record. It’s an eclectic mix of electronica, house, and alternative music that is a joy to listen to. Cyndi was disappointed with her vocal performance on her prior record and sought out vocal coaching for this project. Her vocal performances shine throughout the entire album. Lauper’s label didn’t promote the album, which caused it to perform poorly in the United States and United Kingdom. It did perform great in Japan where it was certified gold. What turned me onto this album was her 2005 acoustic record, The Body Acoustic. As much as I want to say Joni Mitchell got me interested in the dulcimer, which to some extent is true, it really was Cyndi Lauper’s use of it on “Time After Time” and “True Colors” that made me want to play it (which is still a work in progress). The songs “Sisters of Avalon” and “Fearless” made me want to hear the originals. I personally think the album should have been bigger than it was. Let’s see what the sisters have to say.
“Sisters of Avalon” is the title track and opener to the album. Lauper began writing the song while she was on tour for her prior album Hat Full of Stars. The title of the song is inspired from her reading of the book “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It’s a strong song with a celebratory feeling. As many have stated, this is definitely one of the strongest songs she has written to data lyrically. I love the blend of 90s electronic and pop sounds with this folk/alternative instrumentation. It only makes the song feel that much more festive. The song’s theme is of sisterhood. Through shame, turmoil, and fear the song calls upon the women around her to give her strength to keep going. This appears to echo back to both women of the past and present, “Felt someone calling me into the howling of the wind/ I heard the reflection of a sound echoing through my skin …/ And a distant drum rumbling under ground gently guides me on …/ Through my wild heart …/ Whispering to me the Sisters Of Avalon…/ Sisters Of Avalon…Sisters Of Avalon…”. Her songwriting is extremely vivid and emotive. Of all the songs on the record, this one is a must listen first. The music video continues this earthy festive feel. The green screened in effects behind Lauper and her band didn’t age the best, but totally work for the time period. Cyndi is electric in the video. She’s just a whirlwind during the performance, which totally sells the track.
“Ballad of Cleo and Joe” tackles the then taboo subject of the double life of a drag queen. The main character is Joe by day and the beautiful queen Cleo by night. The song is also a full sonic ode to club music of the time that is totally fitting for the gay club feel of the track. By day, Joe works his low pay job waiting for night to come when he can transform, “Little Joe got work for minimum wage/ Tries to get through another dead beat day/ At five a clock he comes home to change/ Takes him many hours just to rearrange”. When night comes around, Joe gets into full glam and becomes Cloe. Cloe goes out to the bar and waits for her moment to be the star, “Every night the DJ kicks off the beat/ Little Cleo’s jumping just to get up on her feet/ Waits in her platforms for the right song to come/ Sipping her cocktail another night has begun”. The music video is is just Lauper in a black bob wig and dolled up in her club best. Her pregnant belly adorned up to look like a mirror ball. It’s cheap and very campy, perfect for the song. You definitely don’t hear songs about drag queens everyday, especially during the 90s. It’s done with a reverence towards the subject that makes the song so enjoyable.
“Fall Into Your Dreams” is a soft romantic piece of music. The opening “do da dos” are whispered giving a very intimate feeling. It’s almost somewhere between a trip-hop and alternative pop song. The song blends these earthy strings, violin, and dulcimer with trip hop beats, synths, and electric guitars. There is a deep sense of caring to towards this person that Cyndi is singing to. She is hear to reassure to lover that she is here for him not matter what. She goes through these affirmations as he sleeps, “If I could catch three wishes from a falling star/ One I would keep/ And two I would put on your pillow with a lullaby (Dada, dada, da)/ Maybe baby’s gone to sleep”. Her hope is through his struggles he will stay with her. It’s a lovely track, but falls a little lower on the list for me out of the rest.
“You Don’t Know” is the first single off the record. Cyndi explores a much more alternative rock sound with this song. The song explores conformity and politics. Lauper is tired of all the “bullshit” that people are mindlessly doing and saying without taking into account what they are blindly following. Lines like “ You don’t know where you belong …/ You should be more careful/ As you follow blindly along …/ To find something to swear to …/ Till you don’t know what’s right from wrong/ You just need to belong somehow” point out this acquiescence to prepackaged rhetoric and political ideology has left people a shell of their former selfs. She wants to challenge you to think for yourself. Lauper plays the zither on this track. The single release contains several remixes to the song that would bring the single up to number 1 on the Billboard Dance charts. I quite enjoy the blend of pop and alternative rock here. Lauper’s voice is strong and assured sounding. The music video also has an alternative feel with its mostly monochromatic color scheme and live shots.
“Love to Hate” is funky and gritty from the get out. The bass and electric guitars give a dirty alternative vibe. Cyndi is giving the finger to all those that are so up their own ass over trends and the “in crowd” that all they are is fake. She’s going for the throat of the fashion critics, industry money men, and self-important hipsters, “Playing games with people lives/ Change the rules when stakes are high/ All the vampires come out at night to play …/ Things are different today, that is always what you say/ Well maybe so, except for people like you …”. She pulls off an aggressive performance that permeates with a sense disgust towards the subjects of her ire. I don’t know if I think her voice lends itself the best to this form of music.
“Hot Gets a Little Cold” is a take on the flame of passion burning out. After her history of prior loves, she’s more reserved on falling head first into infatuation. Her eased approach, “Infatuation is just the great anticipation/ Of starring in that picture show/ Let’s wait until the credits roll …/ When hot gets a little cold”, shows she’s been burned before and wants to get to know someone while first before letting her guard completely down. The song ends echoing the sentiment on her precautions cooling off the heat between them. The song has a very organic feel with a soft blend of acoustic instrumentation such as mandolin and acoustic guitars along with gentle electric guitars. Cyndi’s vocals really stand out against this instrumentals. She adopts a softness that adds a warmth to the song. It’s very nice.
“Unhook the Stars” takes its name from the movie of the same name. The song follows Lauper as she begins to move on from the end of a relationship. There doesn’t seem to be any bad blood between the two. She wants to let him know she still has all his letters and cards. She’s ready to move on and is revitalized by her new found freedom, “And letting go now is like a passport to anywhere/ With time on my hands I can make a new start”. The notion of “unhooking the stars” is letting them fall where they may and not trying to hold on to the past anymore. It adopts a more traditional pop sound of the time adding in the elements of Lauper’s dulcimer playing and an accordion that give the song a richness that keeps it from feeling more generic.
“Searching” was catalyzed through a tape of world beat and funk groove that Cyndi would begin to shape the lyrics around to form the song. Much as the title suggests, Cyndi is searching for more in her life. The song takes turns on how this journey of finding yourself has been for her. It has been both ecstatic and extremely needy through this process. She seems to be leaning on her partner for both emotional support and intellectual and emotional stimulation, “Tuck my heart in your pocket./ My dreams are insecure./ I could drink you to the marrow/ And still cry out for more / ’Cause I’m searching…”. She’s not only ravenous for finding herself outside of her relationships, but also for all aspects of her partner as well. The world beat really shows through on the song against the wash of synths. Although sonically a bit stuck in the time period, I still find the song to be fresh and lovely to put on and let envelope me.
“Say a Prayer” is an ode to all those lost to the AIDs crisis of the 80s and 90s. The song takes on a jazz/pop tone. Sonically it’s a bit too simplistic for me for me. I wish it was just a bit more richer. Cyndi sings about all those lost to AIDs. There seems to be ode to the AIDs quilt, “So, what are you weavin’ there Marionette?/ Everything that’s come to pass/ All the time we thought would last”. Her heart goes out to the community that has been ravaged by the disease and wondering why they are being forsaken, “Some people throw their hands in the sky/ And they wonder why God don’t reply/ Well it’s strange, strange time/ All our friends droppin’ like flies”. I wish it was a little tighter lyrically as well. I think I am just not a fan of the jazzy delivery.
“Mother” is a very bohemian song. It’s got a mix of West Asian sounds and trip-hop. I can hear the addition of Cyndi’s droning dulcimer which adds a richness to the overall sound. Even Lauper’s vocals add in West Asian inflections that remind me what Madonna would experiment with on Ray of Light. Cyndi sounds fantastic as she takes on these different intonations. Mother is an ode to Earth itself and Gaea. These paeanistic themes run throughout the song as Lauper describes how the goddess of Earth has helped generations of humanity, “Slaves and merchants/ Pilgrims and thieves/ Felt her hand and charted skys/ By following her moon”. Through their worship and destruction, she continues to heal and rebuild the planet. I quite enjoy its textured sound and lyrical display.
“Fearless” really highlights Cyndi’s dulcimer playing as it is the main centerpiece of the track. The addition of the accordion and synths give an openness to the song. Cyndi takes on her inner fear. The opening lines, “Sometimes I’m afraid when you go/ Sometimes I’m afraid when you come home/ Underneath it all/ I think I’m afraid when there’s nothing wrong”, display her internal struggle of accepting that things are okay. There’s this since of anxiety to her throughout the song. Lauper wishes she could be the fearless one for others, while worrying about if she was at her lowest would someone be there for her. These notions marry well with the delicate nature of the songs instrumentation.
“Brimstone and Fire”takes the point of view of a lesbian relationship. The song was inspired by Cyndi’s sister Ellen, who had recently come out as a lesbian. Cyndi has said that her sister is one of her role models. This track has an upbeat ska tone that remind me of her hits of She’s So Unusual. The song driving beat and ska/reggae presentation make you want to move. It’s a very sweet ode to a lesbian relationship. The character Lauper takes on does seem torn about her feelings towards another woman, hence brimstone and fire. Through this though, she finds her true happiness with her. They meet in a laundry mat after she lives her sock in her machine. They go on their first date, “The next week at the cinema/ She put her hand on my shoulder/ She almost kissed me walking home/ And I didn’t even scold her”. It ends with the two making a life together, “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/ And when she lights the candles/ I think, here we go…/ But it’s so pleasant after all/ And I say very low/ Don’t forget to light the fire”. Again, Cyndi goes about this with sense of love and appreciation twos the subject that was rarely, if ever, put out in popular music.
“Lollygagging” is a very short closing skit. The track is really just Lauper and her band trying to start up “Hot Gets a Little Cold” and then messing up, which causes laugher amongst the band. It’s a fun little way to close out the album.
This album shows a huge amount of growth from her prior record A Hat Full of Stars. The risks she takes on this project work in her favor overall. I agree with some of the criticism of A Hat Full of Stars as it feels a bit dated and generic. Sisters of Avalon feels passionate and alive throughout. I love that she decided to add so many varied types of stringed instruments: violins, mandolins, dulcimer, and the zither. It adds this rich, fullness to the entire record. Lauper has continued to improve upon her dulcimer playing and has added it to her live shows (i.e. “Time After Time”, “True Colors”, and “All Through the Night”). It is a huge shame that her label decided to not promote the album here. Some of her most interesting and beautiful work is really missed out. She’s continued to experiment with her sound on subsequent projects: jazz on 2004’s At Last, blues on 2010’s Memphis Blues, and even country on 2016's Detours. She’s still as energetic and powerful as ever. She’s also still rocking all colors of hair, which I only hope to do when I’m in my 60s (I’m still blown away that she’s 67 cause she doesn’t look it at all). I highly recommend searching this album out and giving it a listen. My favorites off the record:
- “Sisters of Avalon”
- “Ballad of Cloe and Joe”
- “You Don’t Know”
- “Fall Into Your Dreams”
My overall rating: 7 out of 10 sisters of Avalon…