SISTERS OF AVALON, Cyndi Lauper (Epic)


She’s so unusual. Again.
No joke: Cyndi Lauper has put together a bona fide comeback more worthy of success than anything on the charts.

Lauper’s debut – 1983’s “She’s So Unusual” – was one of rock history’s most monumental achievements by a new artist, producing four Top 5 singles and selling some 9 million copies. 1986’s “True Colors” was the inevitable sophomore slump, but not the end of the world.

Yet Lauper developed an unhealthy affinity for professional wrestling and made flop movies as Madonna vamped all over the place. By 1989’s “A Night To Remember,” Lauper was practically forgotten (despite the powerful single “I Drove All Night”). “Hat Full of Stars” was dead on arrival in 1993, and the 1995 hit collection “Twelve Deadly Cyns . . . And Then Some” was merely a footnote. Acclaimed guest appearances on the TV show “Mad About You” are all that have saved Lauper from absolute oblivion.

So here she is in a decade-long downward spiral, releasing an album much better than it has any right to be.

Singing in a more mature, lower register, Lauper is still lovably quirky on “Sisters of Avalon.” And the old girl has worked hard on every track, co-writing dynamite material with Jan Pulsford and crafting an ambitiously complex sound.

There are drum machines, violins, accordions, mandolins, wah wah guitar, and Lauper herself plays dulcimer and zither, among other things.

OK, so the title track only manages a low-grade fever with its sisterhood anthem, and “You Don’t Know” cloys with its righteous stand against conformity.

Otherwise, there isn’t much to complain about.

Lauper’s earnest portrayal of a working-class transvestite (“Ballad of Cleo and Joe”) is an adventure in world music set to a propulsive beat, and “Love To Hate” is the grittiest rock song she’s recorded since “Money Changes Everything” (“It’s not the clothes that you wear/Or the way you do your hair/It’s just you”). Also, Lauper complements the soft jazz of “Say a Prayer” with a mellow rap.

Although the singer has more on her mind than relationships, her introspective moments are sterling.

Singing in a gravely voice, Lauper shuffles through the sad waltz of “Unhook the Stars” with touching grace. And her moving battle with insecurities turns “Fearless” into a heartbreaker.

No wonder she’s giving a lover a wait-and-see attitude on the bittersweet “Hot Gets a Little Cold” while yearning for an end to loneliness on “Searching,” a marriage of adult contemporary music to exoticism.

Then there’s the springy surprise ending, “Brimstone and Fire,” where Lauper lightheartedly grapples with a budding lesbian relationship (“Is this a sign? From above or below?”).

Lauper deserves a chance. After all, Madonna’s home with that baby, and Toni Braxton and Celine Dion have sapped the life out of radio for long enough.

Rating (five possible): XXXX 1/2

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