This Week in Music, October 8, 2013: Taking Miley Cyrus Seriously

Miley Cyrus: Bangerz

New release (RCA)
Photo by Tyrone Lebon

Whatever you think of Miley Cyrus these days, she does have you thinking. In other words, she got your attention. Which, in the current era of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and elder shockwoman Britney Spears, is the first order of business, and I do mean “business.”

Of course, many people aren’t thinking good thoughts. After Cyrus’s herky-twerky appearance with Robin Thicke at the MTV Video Music Awards, Camille Paglia wrote in Time that the performance was both a “silly stunt” and a “fiasco.” While acknowledging that “sex has been a crucial component of the entertainment industry since the seductive vamps of silent film and the bawdy big mamas of roadhouse blues,” Paglia charged that Cyrus’s notion of sexuality was a “cartoonish gimmick.”

Or, as Cher said on CBS News Sunday Morning, “I didn’t like it. If she had come out naked, and it was beautifully done, I would’ve said, ‘You go, girl.’ I don’t care about that. I don’t like to see things done badly. Outfit: terrible. Dancing: terrible. Singing: average. Performance: terrible.”

Countered Cyrus in a Harper’s Bazaar interview: “I was an adult when I was supposed to be a kid. So now I’m an adult and I’m acting like a kid.”

Well, she’s got a point. And she keeps making it all over Bangerz. She’s “a female rebel”...“struttin’ my stuff.” She’s “a Southern belle, crazier than hell.”

The thing is, what if she’d gotten our attention another way? What if, instead of serving up the risqué videos for “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball,” she had released only the Director’s Cut of the latter? That single-shot, super-close-up video is reminiscent of Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” but trumps it when Miley’s emotions carry her off-sync, an image that has far more impact than a licked sledgehammer.

And what if, instead of appearing on the VMAs, she had first (and only) appeared on Saturday Night Live this past weekend? There, with two guitarists and a real live drummer in tow, she roared through a version of “Wrecking Ball” that not only trounced the keyboard-heavy track on the album but sure beat the living daylights out of some previous SNL turns by various females, rebellious or not. (Can you say “Ashlee Simpson”?)

All of which got me thinking: Forget about the visuals and just listen to Bangerz as an album of music. Gee, what a concept!

The good news: There is much to like. Cyrus, similar to Justin Timberlake and some other related artists, prefers to open her album not with a bang but with a stroll, which she does very well indeed in the mellow, contemplative “Adore You.” Also fine is the pure-pop base of “#GETITRIGHT.” Both of those songs are actual songs, as opposed to excuses for dance moves. That said, some of the friskier stuff here—“SMS (Bangerz),” “FU”—is a kick. And then, of course, you get “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball,” each of which packs more than enough to love.

The bad news: There is also much to ignore, if not dislike. Cyrus is weaker when the hip-hop influence gets stronger, especially when she steps aside for useless raps (from Nelly on “4x4,” from Big Sean on “Love Money Party”). Meanwhile, “Someone Else” is too tech-y, “Maybe You’re Right” tries to be “Wrecking Ball 2.0” but falls way short, and three tracks—“My Darlin’,” “Drive,” “Do My Thang”—meander almost to the point of aimlessness.

That thang she did on SNL was far better—not just the hard-rock take on “Wrecking Ball” but also her winning, poking-fun-at-herself acting in the comedy sketches. (The latter had to make anyone glad that Cyrus hasn’t turned into Amanda Bynes, who could’ve been her generation’s Carol Burnett.) Later in the show, she scored again with an unplugged version of “We Can’t Stop.” Surrounded by three acoustic guitarists and coming across like some latter-day Lesley Gore, Cyrus gave a new, affecting subtext to these lyrics:

It’s our party, we can do what we want to
It’s our house, we can love who we want to
It’s our song, we can sing if we want to
It’s my mouth, I can say what I want to

My advice to Miley, who turns 21 on November 23: Forget the haters, yes, but focus on the creative half of Bangerz and develop it further. Meanwhile, excuse me, I feel the urge yet again to swing along—er, sing along—to “Wrecking Ball.”

Other new releases

Korn: The Paradigm Shift (Prospect Park)
Panic! at the Disco: Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! (Fueled by Ramen/Decaydance)
Stone Temple Pilots with Chester Bennington: High Rise (Play Pen/ADA), 5-song EP

The Fratellis: We Need Medicine (BMG), first album in five years
Kenny Rogers: You Can’t Make Old Friends (Warner Bros.), first country set in seven years

Steve Nieve: ToGetHer (429), from Elvis Costello’s Attractions, Imposters, with guests
Lee Ranaldo and the Dust: Last Night on Earth (Matador), from Sonic Youth, with new band

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.: The Speed of Things (Warner Bros.)
Sleigh Bells: Bitter Rivals (Mom+Pop)
Turin Brakes: We Were Here (Cooking Vinyl/Red River)

Cassadee Pope: Frame by Frame (Republic Nashville), Season 3 winner of The Voice
William Shatner: Ponder the Mystery (Cleopatra), prog-rock album, with guests

Lissie: Back to Forever (Fat Possum), folk-rock singer
Lizzie (Broadway), theatrical rock concept album about Lizzie Borden

Alter Bridge: Fortress (Alter Bridge/Universal)
Danny Brown: Old (Fool’s Gold)
V V Brown: Samson & Delilah (YOY)
Cage the Elephant: Melophobia (RCA)
Anna Calvi: One Breath (Domino)
Ezra Furman: Day of the Dog (Bar/None)
Amos Lee: Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song (Blue Note)
Joe Nichols: Crickets (Red Bow)
of Montreal: Lousy with Sylvianbriar (Polyvinyl)
Gretchen Parlato: Live in NYC (Obliq Sound), CD+DVD
Seasick Steve: Hubcap Music (Third Man)
St. Lucia: When the Night (Neon Gold/Columbia)
Vertical Horizon: Echoes from the Underground (Outfall)
Wild Child: The Runaround (The Noise Company)

Patty Griffin: Silver Bell

Archival release (A&M/UMe; tour dates)

Back in 2000, Patty Griffin recorded Silver Bell as the follow-up to Flaming Red. But as a press release today explains: “The album was not released by A&M Records, a victim of the label’s turn-of-the-century ownership change.” Maybe, too, it was a case of someone at A&M (read: then co-chairman Jimmy Iovine) stating a variation on that lovable declaration, “I don’t hear a hit.” Which would’ve been ironic to the max, considering that two years later, covers of “Top of the World” and “Truth #2” helped make a smash hit of the Dixie Chicks’ Home.

Griffin herself would re-record some of the lost album’s songs for future projects: “Making Pies” for 1000 Kisses and “Top of the World,” “Mother of God, and “Standing” for Impossible Dream. Other songs have appeared elsewhere, including “What You Are” on Joan Osborne’s Pretty Little Stranger and, most recently, “Silver Bell” on Natalie Maines’s current album, Mother.

Now, 13 years later, someone at A&M (read: current chairman-all-by-himself Jimmy Iovine) has finally decided to release this treasure trove of material. The result has 12 of the original album’s 14 tracks and replaces “Making Pies” and “Standing” with the newly discovered “Fragile” and “So Long,” all freshly mixed by Glyn Johns.

Here’s what I hear: edgy electric tracks (“Little God,” “Perfect White Girls,” “Sorry and Sad,” “Driving”), down-home acoustic tunes (“Truth #2,” “So Long”), acoustic/electric hybrids (“Fragile,” “Top of the World”), late-night vibes (“Sooner or Later,” “What You Are”), outright rockers (“Boston,” “Silver Bell”), and more. All of it, wonderful. And all of which just goes to show: You can’t keep a great album down.

Other reissues and archival releases

Tony Bennett: Live at the Sahara—Las Vegas, 1964 (RPM/Columbia/Legacy)
Alex Chilton: Electricity by Candlelight (Bar/None), live, NYC, 1997, during power outage
Bing Crosby: Bing Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook (UMe)
Bing Crosby: Le Bing—Song Hits of Paris (UMe)
Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald: The Complete Decca Sessions (Mosaic), 8 CDs
Ain’t In It for My Health—A Film About Levon Helm (Kino Lorber), doc on Blu-ray, DVD
Various Artists: CBGB (Omnivore, CD or LP; Rhino, expanded digital), soundtrack
Various Artists: XXX—Three Decades of Roadrunner Records (Roadrunner), 4 CDs