When Cyndi Lauper's MERRY CHRISTMAS...HAVE A NICE LIFE was first released back in '98, I remember reading some capsule review in some popular magazine or other (maybe PEOPLE?) to the effect that it was surprisingly good, better than it "had a right to be," in fact. Huh? Is that a compliment?
I imagine the reviewer thought he was being pretty darn generous to a performer, whom he no doubt recalled as being basically a novelty act from the early MTV days. What's frustrating about reviews like this is that they seldom reference any previous recording other than SHE'S SO UNUSUAL (or, if you're lucky, TRUE COLORS). Cyndi's 90s work(HAT FULL OF STARS and SISTERS OF AVALON) had demonstrated a maturing talent (not that the "immature" stuff was bad--far from it). It's just that, had anybody been bothering to listen, they would have known that she was an artist to be taken seriously and a force to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately, too many had written her off prematurely. And by 1998, her record company was pretty much ready to show her the door. She had one record left on her contract with SONY (who hadn't been offering much in the way of support anyway). Cyndi had gone out touring in '97, opening for Tina Turner, and giving it her all while visibly pregnant...and the record company could scarcely be bothered to promote her excellent SISTERS OF AVALON. A Christmas album seemed like a handy way to meet the terms of the contract and for artist and record company to bid each other adieu.
Christmas CDs are usually lower budget affairs (I'm told) and as it happened, Cyndi already had a couple of Christmas themed tracks in the can anyway. Actually, "Feels Like Christmas" from HAT FULL OF STARS is really more of a love song than a true holiday song, but it had the Noel thing going on in the title and a nice bounce (one of the more upbeat tracks on what was otherwise Cyndi's most serious record to date). "Early Christmas Morning" had appeared on the Japanese version of SISTERS OF AVALON, so that only meant eight or nine new tracks at the most.
It could have been a knock-off, folks, but Cyndi Lauper's sense of artistry and adventure knows few if any bounds, and musically, HAVE A NICE LIFE (the title obviously being something of a kiss-off to SONY) continues to explore the same musical terrain as the previous two records. Queens born Cyndi comes by her multi-culturalism naturally, You've got a little Zydeco here, a little Island music and her version of "Silent Night" starts off with some Mid-Eastern strains, which only begs the question, why hasn't anybody done anything like this before. But that's the closer, let's go back to the beginning.
It's been said that the best Christmas music is tinged with melancholy, and Cyndi's opener "Home for Christmas Day," replete with ringing Byrds-like guitar, is something of a rock rewrite of "I'll Be Home For Christmas." (Ever notice how many holiday albums BEGIN with the latter song: Cyndi honors the tradition in her unique way by starting off with her own updated, similary themed carol.) Then it's off to Cajun-inflected "Early Christmas Morning" and Cajun-Caribbean mix on "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree (a wink and a nod to Brenda Lee--a singer she was often compared to back in the day). The fun continues with "Christmas Conga" and the winning, slightly ribald novelty "Minnie and Santa." Gradually, though, the all the spirited fun begins to give way to a more serious, solemn and (dare we say it?) spiritual mood.
Two songs in row celebrating Cyndi's recent motherhood? Why not? It might be a little much for some artists, but for one as open hearted and honest as Cyndi Lauper, it works. I've had a few "Well, I dunno about this moments" with Cyndi's ballads before (including classics like "Time After Time" and "True Colors"), but they always win me over eventually. "New Year's Baby (First Lullabye)" and "December Child" are no different, delicate songs that avoid slipping into the precious by dint of Cyndi's sheer conviction.
After starting out on such a sunny, tropical note, the album ends on an appropriately winterlike note with the Celtic flavored "In the Bleak Midwinter" and a relatively stark reading of "Silent Night." From the festive to the hauntingly fragile...Cyndi Lauper sums up the season. Definitely, not a knock-off.
Fast forward to 2003-2004, Cyndi's back with SONY (at least for now), doing the standards thing (but definitely doing them her way), and now the record company has now come out with a remastered version of this album. I haven't heard the new version yet, but it did actually seem as though this yuletide offering, delightful as it is, could have used some brightening (of sound and spirit). Looks like everyone may just