Reviews: Record Release Rundown - The Latest From Miley Cyrus, Stone Temple Pilots, Sleigh Bells and More

PHOTO: Miley Cyrus visits "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," Oct. 8, 2013, in New York City.
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

It's been another busy fall week for new releases. Obviously, a lot of attention this week has been given to Miley Cyrus, but we will also look at Stone Temple Pilots' first release with Linkin Park's Chester Bennington as its frontman. Cage The Elephant drops its third album as do experimental electro-clashers Sleigh Bells. The Strokes' Albert Hammond Jr. releases an exciting four-song EP. Plus, we'll take a listen to something new from rapper Danny Brown and the latest solo offering from Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo.

PHOTO: Miley Cyrus "Bangerz."
RCA
Miley Cyrus' "Bangerz" (Deluxe Edition)

Miley Cyrus' new album, "Bangerz" brings a lot of baggage even before you press play. From the controversial (and some would say culturally insensitive) video for her single, "We Can't Stop," and her awkward twerking on a Beetlejuice-clad Robin Thicke at the VMA's to the weird, plushy and druggy symbolism all throughout both of these performances. The VMAs performance only deserves attention because it wasn't done well. In fact, it succeeded because it got people talking, but it was truly a clumsy display. It was spectacle for spectacle's sake. That being said, as few people have pointed out, it is truly difficult for a former child star to grow up and mold an adult image. This is no doubt partly why Sinead O'Connor wanted to reach out and offer advice to Miley last week. That, and to respectfully warn her about people molding and manipulating her newly sexualized image. But, let's, for a second, say that Miley wants to sexualize herself on her own terms. Given the fact that she was idolized for years by a generation of tweens, such a transition can be a slippery slope.

The reaction to the naked "Wrecking Ball" video proves that to be true.

"Bangerz" is, in effect, her music career's awkward adolescence. Like any bratty adolescent, it is hell-bent on making a scene. Take for instance, Miley's sarcastic response to Sinead O'Connor's well-worded letter of thoughtful career advice. That was essentially her shouting, "You're not my mother!" and stomping off in a huff. Of course, O'Connor probably should've had such a communication with her privately, thus avoiding the possibility for spectacle.

Once the play button is pressed, "Bangers" begins on a humdrum note with "Adore You." The song is slow and never really takes off. It feels half-written as a slightly Autotuned Miley sings, "Oh ... Hey ... Oh ... Baby ... Baby ... Are you listening?" It gets a tad bit of lift when the chorus comes in, but it isn't enough. This is forgettable fluff and definitely an odd choice to open the record.

Next up is the now-familiar "We Can't Stop," which, in some ways, plays like club gospel (albeit misguided club gospel), meant to shock just as much as it is meant to be a comfort to the listeners who can relate to its hedonistic club-hopping message. As a slowed down voice chants, "It's our party, we can do what we want," the notion of rebellion returns. The track is as bratty as pop songs come. Miley even throws in some not-so-cleverly-veiled drug references, including mentions of trying to "get a line in the bathroom," and, "dancing with Molly." ("Molly" is the slang term for the crystallized version of the drug MDMA.) While this is one of the most listenable tracks here, it still plays like the night-crawling evil twin of her hit "Party in the USA." Aimed to show a different side of Cyrus, it succeeds but it substitutes shock for musical growth.

Do you want to hear Miley attempt to rap? That's what you get on the very messy , "SMS (Bangers)" which sounds like it nicks a little of Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It." The track also possesses a half-hearted, brief Britney Spears cameo. The song lacks focus, but things get worse with Miley's dance-club-ready drill-sergeant pose on "4 by 4," where she sings, "I'm a female rebel. Can't you tell?" over and over again. (If you have to tell people you are a "rebel," odds are you probably aren't a "rebel.") Nelly tries his best to assist, but the track still falls flat.

There might actually be a half-decent song hidden in "My Darlin'," but the Autotune leaves it drowning.

In comparison, "Wrecking Ball" is a No. 1 hit and sounds like it. By far, it is the best song here and the only one with real focus, even if it does sound like it was crafted in a boardroom. (I can imagine the conversation: "What if we make the verses sound like they could've been part of a Lana Del Rey song? What if we then combine that with a chorus that sounds like something Katy Perry would sing?" Luckily, sans Autotune, Cyrus has a slightly better voice than Perry.) This is the best song Miley has ever done. If she could maintain this sense of quality and clarity for an entire disc, she might be unstoppable.

But the haze seeps back in with the murky and dreadful "Love Money Party," where Cyrus drops this pearl of wisdom, "Party ain't nothin' but a party, when you party every day, ain't nothin' but a party." Mike-Will-Made-It's production is thick with wooziness but, ultimately, this track plays like a joke or an accidental parody of how a modern club "banger" should sound. It is vacuous.

The writing-by-committee approach continues with "#Getitright." (Note the hashtag, added, no doubt, for coolness. Yawn.) I'm sure the thought was, "Hey, whistling worked well for Maroon 5 with that 'Moves Like Jagger' song! Let's write a whistling song for Miley!" But the song goes nowhere. Again, a lot of promise. Zero lift-off. It lacks a killer chorus.

"Drive" is another Mike-Will-Made-It jam, and it surprisingly takes us closer to "Wrecking Ball" territory, so it stands as the album's second true keeper. Its dub-step-y stomp could make it a club hit.

"FU" is a clunky cabaret kiss-off, complete with dated '80s-sounding instrumentation. Cyrus shows some fire here, but that doesn't make up for the laughable nature of the chorus. "I got two letters for you! / One of them is F and the other one's U." It's like the lesson "Sesame Street" never wanted to teach.

Things don't get much better from there. "Do My Thang" finds Miley "rapping" again over a trippy beat, while "Maybe You're Right" is an unsuccessful ballad where she sings, "You might think I'm crazy.../Maybe you're right." Again, it is meant to maintain her "rebel" image.

"Someone Else," may turn into a dance single, but still sounds like it was built from a formula. And wait. ... Is it pseudo-quoting First Corinthians' "Love is ..." section?

T he deluxe edition has three bonus tracks, with the lite-radio, muzak-baiting, "Rooting for My Baby," the hard-charging, '80s-influenced motivational jam, "On My Own," and the synth and drum-machine workout, "Hands in the Air." Ludicris' cameo on the latter gives it some much-needed push but, ultimately, none of these tracks add anything to the mix.

"Bangerz" is ultimately an unsatisfying display with flecks of hope. If Miley ever finds her focus and grows up, she might have something. In the meantime, she's just making a scene with little reward.

PHOTO: Stone Temple Pilots With Chester Benningtons "High Rise,"
Play Pen
Stone Temple Pilots With Chester Bennington's "High Rise" (EP)

After the members of Stone Temple Pilots announced that they were parting ways with Scott Weiland, they quickly put Linkin Park's Chester Bennington in his place. Bennington, still very much active in Linkin Park, may not seem, necessarily, to be the most obvious choice. While he possesses very impressive vocal dexterity, he's not known to be as much of a chameleon as Weiland. Weiland, himself, has been upset with the change, and after he threatened to sue, the band added "with Chester Bennington" to its moniker. Weiland has stated publicly that there is no bad blood between him and Bennington and that he holds more animosity towards his former bandmates, the DeLeo brothers.

So, how does Bennington sound in Weiland's place on this brief, five-song EP? He sounds OK, but too often, he sounds like he is doing a Weiland impression. It's off-putting. There's no mistake from the first charge of "Out of Time" that this is still STP, but Bennington's voice is higher and packs a slightly different brand of muscle than Weiland. So, it ends up sounding like STP, but something is slightly out of whack.

Bennington does his best and neither he nor the rest of the band members embarrass themselves in any way. But when he bends his voice in a very Weiland-esque way during "Black Heart," one can't help but wish that one was hearing Weiland, instead. This feeling lasts throughout the entire song cycle. With time and more releases together, maybe Bennington will become a more familiar presence but, for now, he seems like an impressionist substitute.

The song cycle itself, on the other hand, plays like a collection of five singles. Perhaps these tracks were isolated for this very purpose. Introducing Bennington into the fold would be more difficult on a full-length album with potential filler. These five tracks all strike you firmly in the gut. It is just strange, though, the degree to which they evoke the spirit of Weiland.

So, in a way, "High Rise" does satisfy even if it doesn't seem completely right. Bennington does his best in a difficult situation. This brief sampler plays a little better than the band's previous Weiland-less experiment under the name "Talk Show" in 1997. This collection at least maintains STP's spirit, even if it is missing one of the band's key architects.

PHOTO: Cage The Elephants "Melophobia."
RCA
Cage the Elephant's "Melophobia"

With each record they add to their discography, Bowling Green, Ky.'s Cage the Elephant adds a new facet to its sound. The band's self-titled debut was a bro-tastic mix of southern rock and blues, owing a great deal to similar bands like Kings of Leon and My Morning Jacket, with slight nods to Beck's early work. When the band's single, the post-"Loser" jam, "Ain't No Rest For The Wicked," began climbing the charts and getting mainstream radio play, it was unlike any other single of that moment. Two years and some change later, they returned with the retro-grunge album, "Thank You, Happy Birthday," containing the mind-blowing single, "Aberdeen," which may or may not owe its name to Kurt Cobain's hometown.

The band's new album, "Melophobia" combines the influences of the first two records and adds some new elements into the mix, as well. Tracks like "Spiderhead" and "Halo" contain a very jagged, retro-'60s garage sound, while "Telescope" is an intimate-sounding ballad owing a lot to AM radio staples of the '70s. In a different musical landscape, the latter might have been a career-defining hit.

Then, there's the spiraling spy-rock blues of "It's Just Forever," a memorable duet with the Kills' Alison Mosshart, who stops the tempo cold in the middle to sing a dynamite solo. And that's even before the song devolves into a gonzo piano breakdown.

Lead singer Matt Shultz and company are definitely headed into ever-expanding territory. One can look at this two ways. Firstly, it makes the band hard to pin down, which can make it seem unbalanced at times, thus disappointing fans looking for a stable sound. The better way to look at the band's career trajectory is to view it as an ever-changing vessel. The one mainstay is the abrasive edge. "Halo," for instance is equal parts power-pop and screech. While "Melophobia" is the band's most tuneful album to date, it packs enough bile to frighten away the squares, as well.

Weird jumps into falsetto territory possibly mar the otherwise-appealing, hard-rocking, horn-assisted work-out, "Black Widow," while the walking and stumbling, beat-driven "Hypocrite," may be one of the album's most straightforward joys.

Then there's the punked-up, heavily obscured mess-rock number "Teeth." There's a great hook buried gloriously in fuzz, but the biggest surprise comes when a dirty-sounding saxophone bursts out of the front of the mix, playfully belching out notes with a sense of freedom seldom heard this side of a "free-jazz" record. The track then becomes a hard-edged Dixieland stroll, with Shultz spewing spoken word into a fuzzy microphone. Combined, it sounds like a New Orleans brass band wandered into a garage-rock practice while a beat-poet was sitting in for the night. It may add up to a bit of a mess, but joyously so. It makes for one of the most daring tracks released on a major-label record in some time. The band's A&R team at RCA, perhaps, deserves some credit for not being frightened by such unabashed experimentation.

Of course, when the album then closes with the sweetly and gently nostalgic, "Cigarette Daydreams," all sense of clarity is restored.

"Melaphobia" shows Cage the Elephant as an evolving force, finding balance between noise and melody while exploring all terrain in between. It's sonically shocking in some places and gloriously euphoric in others. Cage the Elephant may keep some listeners guessing, but to others, that's what makes the ride worthwhile.

PHOTO: Albert Hammond Jr.s "AHJ" EP.
Cult
Albert Hammond Jr.'s "AHJ" EP

Albert Hammond Jr., fresh off the release of the Strokes' album, "Comedown Machine," returns to releasing solo material for the first time in five years. He has long been that band's secret weapon and an ace songwriter in his own right. If you go back and listen to his 2006 solo debut, "Yours To Keep," its merging of Big Star and Guided by Voices influences plays just as appealingly as the Strokes landmark debut, "Is This It." Actually, outside of the Strokes, he has made much more interesting solo material than Julian Casablancas, which, of course, isn't a surprise, when you consider his father, Albert Hammond, was the source behind such landmark '70s hits as "It Never Rains In Southern California" and "The Air That I Breathe." It is in his genes, after all.

"AHJ," Hammond's new EP, contains 4 tracks and clocks in at a very brief 12 minutes. But these four songs leave an impression. Still slightly in new-wave mode, as he was on "Comedown Machine," these songs have an appealing, spiky poppiness.

A NSFW video for the opening track, "St. Justice," was dropped online this week. In the video, Hammond and a woman walk past each other on the street and smile . Next we flash forward to what may be an apartment they share, with scenes of them listening to records, looking lovingly at each other in the bathtub and wrapping themselves in bedsheets in fits of ecstasy. Essentially, they are falling in love. Then there is a sudden fight and breakdown, and we see them back on the street, smiling and passing each other. The implication is either that the middle portion was a fantasy or that, perhaps, this is a concentrated look at how fleeting love can be. We drift in and out of each other's lives and we have to know when and how to hold onto each other. All throughout the song, within the context of the video, Hammond's lyrics become especially haunting. "Something you said to me. / But I can't explain it. / Something you said to me. / I know you've asked it. / Somehow you found me. / The words are in motion now. / I got locked in myself / And I don't know what to do. / There were dreams in my eyes that now don't shine through." Pretty potent stuff! Especially when you consider the song is only three minutes in length.

The set continues with the more Strokes'-esque "Strange Tidings," which has similarly ominous lyrics. He sings, "If I'm guilty, I'll walk away." These are vulnerable songs about loss and they pack quite a punch. This track could've very easily been a Strokes song and Hammond delivers it with a tenderness I've never heard in Casablancas. That being said, there is a sense of unity here once you know that this EP was released by Casablancas' imprint, Cult Records. It's nice to know that they support each other outside the confines of the band.

"Rude Customer" is next, which again brings to mind the previously mentioned Guided by Voices influence. This song recalls Robert Pollard at his best and most lucid. Hammond has really developed a strong skill for subtle lyrical narrative.

The set concludes with the moody and sweeping "Cooker Ship." The track has a seasick-like tension as it goes from its quiet verses to its shouted chorus. Again, in different light, this could've easily wound up on a Strokes record, thus proving on his own that Hammond can bring the same sense of power as his main band.

These four songs leave the listener begging for more. They very easily could've been the first four tracks on an exceptional record. I hope there is more on the way. "AHJ" is a compelling and dynamic listen.

Sleigh Bells' "Bitter Rivals"

Sleigh Bells can be extremely frustrating. If you are looking for an argument against the industry's mastering "sound wars," look no further than their 2010 album, "Treats," with its heavily over-modulated and distorted brand of electro rock. But for every bit of frustration, there is a glimmer of hope. That album's track, "Rill Rill" stood out like a sore thumb. It was a lush oasis amid a field of noise.

The situation improved on their second album, last year's "Reign of Terror" with its appealing single, "Comeback Kid." But again, it was the duo's moments of restraint that stood out the most.

Now, Sleigh Bells returns with its third offering, "Bitter Rivals," and the results show further refinement of the duo's sound. Backed by retro-electro-break-beats and loud guitars, Alexis Krauss still sounds like she's fronting a mash-up between Lisa Lisa and Fugazi. The pairing of sounds doesn't always work, but this is Sleigh Bells' most successful attempt at fusing these sounds so far. Krauss' screaming in the back of the chorus of "Minnie" definitely gives the song some strong pull and the slight Eastern flavor of "Sugarcane" is intriguing, especially when she quietly chants "Be aware. Be aware. Be aware," in front of a wall of guitar fuzz.

On this set, the emphasis is more on Sleigh Bells' danceable side, even if it tries to find the happy medium between kids doing headspins on cardboard and slamming into each other in the mosh-pit. "Sing Like A Wire," attempts to bridge this gap and partly succeeds, even if it contains some of the clunkiest-sounding synth horn sounds to be heard on a record recorded after 1987.

"Young Legends," in contrast, is a rather subdued, dance-floor-ready highlight, showing what Sleigh Bells can do best.

"Tiger Kit" sounds like an appealing sequel to "Comeback Kid," even if its welcome gets a little worn when Krauss cheesily screams, "Make like a banana and split!" as the track closes.

Krauss actually sings on this record more than she shouts. "To Hell With You" is a pretty satisfying ballad disguised as a dance song, although it would play a lot better without the synth strings. (Seriously, are they playing a mid-'80s, low-end Casio? That sound isn't kitschy, it is just horrible.) It is honestly distracting.

"24" is the album's true standout track, with Krauss' best bit of singing to date and a warmth not felt on the rest of the record. Similarly, the closer, "Love Sick," finds middle ground between the noise of early hits like "Infinity Guitars" and the duo's softer, more melodic side.

"Bitter Rivals" is the best album yet from Sleigh Bells, and as the band grows and matures, it is slowly finding its sweet spot. At this rate, considering this is the duo's third record, I predict by the fifth Sleigh Bells will be able to release a thoroughly consistent and satisfying set.

PHOTO: Danny Browns "Old."
Fools Gold
Danny Brown's "Old"

Detroit's Danny Brown has built his image on a wacky persona fusing classic hip-hop allegiance and a club-ready attitude. His messy appearance and missing front teeth have served as his trademark. His last full-length, "XXX," had a drawing of a face on its cover with a tongue sticking out for a pill. That album was, for the most part, a haze of slowed down voices and murky beats. In contrast, last year, Brown released "Grown Up," a straight-forward old-school, classic hip-hop jam that clocked in at just two-and-a-half minutes.

"Old," finds Brown literally splitting the difference, mining an area closer to the latter during the first half and closer to the former during the second half. Thus, he divides the record into sides.

Early on, there is clarity in his voice, which, for the most part, doesn't reach a cartoonish howl until the more electronic second half. In a way, there is a quest to return hip-hop to its roots, with a serious focus on gritty rhymes and hard-edged beats. Brown is a little more progressive in his approach though, in the way that he is willing to put decidedly unhip-hop guests on his album, like Purity Ring and British electro singer Charli XCX. At times, Brown is trying to fuse old-school rhymes with new EDM-ready club beats, while other tracks are more straight ahead.

This is rough material not for the easily offended, from the drug-fueled tales of "Torture," to the strongly graphic sex-rhymes of "Dope Fiend Rental," featuring Schoolboy Q. It won't be for everybody.

"Gremlins" is a hard-edged tale of robbery, drugs and poverty. Brown raps about a protagonist near the end of the track, "Listening to 2 Chainz and thinking about college. / I wonder if he knew that 2 Chainz went to college. / I wonder if he knew that, / Would that change his mind? / Guess that's something we will find in due time."

Brown's frankness on the more reflective tracks is this album's best asset. On tracks like "Lonely" and "Clean Up," he reflects on his own issues of depression, drug-binges and womanizing. He talks about his family and how his parents split up when he was 18, and how a decade later his mother was nearly homeless. This isn't a record for the party. This is honesty.

Throughout the album's first half, he tells tales of debauchery and then proclaims that he is ready to clean up his act. It's almost as if he is using his hip-hop status as a therapist's couch. But the tone quickly changes.

In the second half of the record, the backdrops get more EDM-friendly, particularly on the track, "Dubstep" and its follow-up, "Dip." But if you think about it, he's using the soundscape merely as an environment setter, much like hip-hop's previous generation once used P-Funk and James Brown. Hip-hop purists will get more of a thrill from the album's more confessional first half, but the partying club-hoppers will enjoy the second half.

On "Handstand," a graphic stripper-and-sex ode, Brown's voice reaches a siren-like pitch to match the electronic swipes in the background. It is here where the second half firmly and majorly wears thin.

"Old" starts off as a consistent and fascinating record, but its dual nature brings it down. Any good will earned from the confessional first half is quashed by the end of the bravado-filled second half, even if he does return to the more thoughtful approach on the record's closer, "Float On." The problem may lie in the sequencing. If the tracks were intermingled with each other instead of separated into "sides," it might flow better. But as it stands, the record seems wildly disconnected. Nevertheless, it shows Brown as a unique and often compelling presence in hip-hop as he continues to grow.

PHOTO: Lee Ranaldo And The Dusts "Last Night On Earth."
Matador
Lee Ranaldo and the Dust's "Last Night on Earth"

In the aftermath of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon's separation and the presumed break-up of Sonic Youth, who would have guessed that Lee Ranaldo would emerge as a firm standard-bearer of the band's former sound? To be fair, Ranaldo isn't working alone. Both solo records he has released in the last two years have featured SY's Steve Shelley behind the drum-kit, so essentially half the band is intact. But considering Moore and Gordon were unquestionably the band's leaders, Ranaldo's confidence as a solo performer is both refreshing an reassuring, especially as Moore tries to find new roots with his new band, Chelsea Light Moving, and Gordon explores her more experimental side with her new duo, Body/Head. In comparison, Ranaldo and Shelley seem delightfully grounded and surprisingly accessible.

While, "Last Night On Earth" is more sprawling than last year's "Between the Times & The Tides," it still possesses the same sense of melody. From the beginning, it is apparent that this may be 2013's best collection for autumnal reflection. "Home Chds," for instance, plays like a cloudier expanded answer to R.E.M., while "The Rising Tide" culminates into a very Sonic Youth-esque guitar explosion.

The record on the whole is filled with a free-jam vibe, from the calculated guitar-noodling of "By the Window," to the gradual layering and evolution of the title track. Then there's the harpsichord sidestep on "Late Descent," which feels like an on-the-spot bit of idea development.

While there may be nothing on here with the pop-like potential of his last album's lead single, "Off the Wall," this record still has plenty to offer. It's like sitting in on a private jam among friends.

If you miss Sonic Youth and haven't been following Lee Ranaldo, you have some catching up to do. He and Shelley are doing their best to fill the void. They are still carrying the torch.

Next week, new albums from Paul McCartney and Pearl Jam are released, as well as Toad the Wet Sprocket's first proper studio album since 1997's "Coil."

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