Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Better as a Single: "Hannah Montana 2 / Meet Miley Cyrus" by Miley Cyrus

This blog got listed in some online blog index under the category 'classic rock'. It bugged me, because I didn't intend it to be limited to any particular genre or era - but looking at the albums I've discussed so far, it's tough to find fault with that classification, really. And to a certain extent it does make sense, in that the most archetypal 'double albums' do come from an earlier time in history, and do tend to occur in the rock genre more than, say, pop or R&B genres.

But still, there are plenty of double albums or double CDs still being made. So I've been humbled enough to get with something more current. And, genre-wise, I decided to challenge myself by going for something that in my ordinary life I would never listen to. And Disney Channel pap certainly fit the bill.

There is a particular brand of double album that pretends to be two separate albums, joined Chang-and-Eng-style at the chest. This is one. It pretends to be the second soundtrack from the Hannah Montana TV show and the solo début of Miley Cyrus. Which is all well and good except: (1) Hannah Montana doesn't sing song: she's a fictional creation. Miley Cyrus is the singer. On both of these 'albums'. (2) I can't hear any real difference between the contents of these two discs. reviewers seem to, finding the second half to be less processed and showing wider musical variety. Seeing as how every second of this disc is processed more than bologna and has a musical variety precisely as wide as the CD itself is thick, those seem like moot points.

Musical variety: it's what'll do your head in listening to this barely-sixty-minute double album. Most of it plays like pep-rally music, filled with a cheery vim and vigour just as forced in its teen singer as in its presumably middle-aged musicians and songwriters. The touchstones appear primarily to be Avril Lavigne and Gwen Stefani - post-post-'alternative' acts that follow a DNA lineage ultimately back to early-eighties post-punk new wave, the music that its more aged behind-the-scenes musicians inevitable grew up with. The main difference between Hannah Montana and Avril or Gwen is that this stuff here is more gauche, more clumsy and tacky - which arguably makes it more authentic. Miley filters her southern accent through the California and Ontario accents of her source material, each of which do their best to affect attitudinal punkish English accents. The resulting semantic mess isn't helped by the fact that Cyrus is regularly given material that she's unable to sing, and bludgeons it all with a phrasing entirely lacking in subtlety.

Yet ultimately I found it tough to dislike her - her personality does shine through all the Disney sheen, and you get the impression of a gawkish, eager-to-please kid still amazed at where her life has taken her. I think I'd like her if I knew her as a person. Still, that doesn't mean that these twenty songs are anything less than torture to get through - unless very judiciously selected. As I believe 12 to be the perfect number of songs for a pop album, I was going for a 12-track single album, but even that had me plunging into annoying songs, so I stuck it to 11. Since this album presumably hasn't been anywhere near a vinyl pressing plant, I haven't bothered dividing it into a side one and a side two: it's just 11 songs in order. For the record, five of them came from the Hannah Montana half of the disc, the other six from the purported solo album.

Hannah Montana 2 / Meet Miley Cyrus
  1. We Got the Party (3:32)
  2. See You Again (3:10)
  3. East Northumberland High (3:24)
  4. Old Blue Jeans (3:23)
  5. Right Here (2:44)
  6. One in a Million (3:56)
  7. Let's Dance (3:02)
  8. Clear (3:03)
  9. Bigger Than Us (2:57)
  10. True Friend (3:09)
  11. I Miss You (3:58)
The box below contains the entire contents of my single-disc version of this album, hosted by YouTube. Click on the box itself to reveal the scrollbars, and click on any of the scrollbars to hear the music.

» Hannah Montana 2 / Meet Miley Cyrus, Single-Disc Version «

We Got the Party: keep (track one)

Very much the archetypal song of this collection: a bit of vaguely ska-based post-new wave froth, filled with vim and vigour and, obviously, shallow as a puddle. It's ultimately tiring, but not as tiring as this whole collection in sequence becomes.

With reservations, I kept this as the opening track. Not because it sets the mood I was hoping to create so much as it seemed silly anywhere else.

Nobody's Perfect: lose

Very old man and music critic Robert Christgau called this the album's 'choice cut'. God knows why: there are some interesting ideas in it, but it's ultimately migraine-inducing. Guitar-based but with squiggly synths all over the place, unpleasantly hectoring self-help vocals and plenty of background 'c'mon's'.

Make Some Noise: lose

A rather silly lighters-in-the-air 'anthem' in 6/8, painfully overlong by tennybop standards. Miley just doesn't have the pipes to pull it off, the incredibly vague self-help lyrics annoy ('you have a diamond inside of your heart'?), and anyway... isn't her audience a bit too young to be bringing lighters to concerts?

Rock Star: lose

Surprisingly 'hard' guitars for Disney underpin the album's most obvious Avril Lavigne 'homage' (complete with 'punk' vowels), but it's pretty bland for all the noise it makes. I guess lyrically this is the Hannah Montana story, but seeing as I don't care, I don't need to say anything about that, except that 'I really am a rock star' isn't a lyric designed to engender sympathy. Neither is that terrible guitar solo.

Old Blue Jeans: keep (track four)

Way more 'electro' than the country-ish title suggests, this is a midtempo jaunt through post-new-wave musical cliché, but what lets me forgive its extreme tinniness is the fact that the song is genuinely catchy, even if lyrically it's more exposition.

Ultimately, though my album doesn't have sides, it front-loads the frothier power-pop stuff, before mixing up moods and textures a little more in the second half. So since this is pure undiluted Hannah Montana pep, first half it is: track four.

Life's What You Make It: lose

By now the unrelenting chipperness of this disc has already started to wear down anyone older than 15, and it's still barely begun... this hyperactive track was one of the main 'singles' from the album (if you believe Wikipedia, there were fully twelve singles from this project... but I won't mind if you doubt that as much as I do). Anyway, it's certainly 'pop' enough, but it's a bit too stuffed with vim and vigour, and let's face it: whatever charms Miley might possess, her voice really isn't one of them.

One in a Million: keep (track six)

The older people who write songs for Disney obviously remember Bruce Hornsby, whom this song plaigiarises. It's actually not that bad: it's got a warmer feel than the cold pep-rally stuff that precedes it. Miley's still singing well past her natural abilities, but the song's 80s MOR-cribbing rises and falls are innocuous enough empty background music. Which is a compliment, believe it or not.

Sure there's no side one or side two here, but I can't help sticking a slow one in what once upon a time might have been the final track of side one: track six.

Bigger Than Us: keep (track nine)

A surprisingly secular take on 'believing in something bigger', this song still has bland lyrics. But at least it's not "I'm really a rock star" or self-help platitudes. It's a catchy enough song that underlines the main problem with this disc: just how unrelenting these songs seem in succession. Only one minor 'break', and then we're back to business-as-usual, returned to the post-post-punk template. Ultimately empty.

I put this toward the end of the disc in an admittedly desperate attempt to give the album some kind of thematic 'flow'. As a 'message song', it's kind of a climax at track nine before the final two slower sentimental songs that close the disc.

You and Me Together: lose

More of the same, more of the same, more of the same... by now I'm so keen to hear anything that's even slightly different from the template... I can find nothing at all to say about this song, which sounds exactly like every other song on this disc - no more, no less.

True Friend: keep (track ten)

This song starts off cribbing Madonna's 'Don't Tell Me' before reverting to form, but it's not that bad a song, really. The lyrics at times are so ridiculous ('don't feel the need to do a rebel yell'? Really?) that you might feel the need to gag... but asking a teen to sing about her best friend is a good way to get her to 'connect', and to get her preteen audience to 'connect' too. This is the song that concludes the so-called 'Hannah Montana album', if you choose to buy into that particular pretense, and it does the album-closing job well enough. It's the kind of song that could have been actually very good if it wasn't Disney holding the reins, but... well, it's better than nothing.

Can't have two songs closing an album any more than you can have two opening it... I give this penultimate position, track 10, because the other one deserved the last word more.

See You Again: keep (track two)

The first minute of this song is as beguiling as this collection gets - it's actually quite attractive, with synth swells and a kind of twangy guitar. Miley's voice almost approaches - whisper it - being sexy. Then at the 60-second point, business-as-usual uptempo guitars show up and make this song into just another Hannah Montana track, whoever's name is on the label. Still, all in all, it's panic-attack-describing lyrics are all right. As is her singing. And that's as close to praise as you'll hear from me this month.

I really wanted to start the album with this - a fake-out that would give an impression that this album is better than it truly is. But I had to delegate it to track two behind the chipper "We Got the Party".

East Northumberland High: keep (track three)

Make no mistake - this is a profoundly stupid song. With the most derivative post-ska soundtrack on the album and lyrics set in high school that could only have been written by a high schooler, it's ridiculous. Bit here's the thing: ultimately, it's irresistable. Bang your head against the wall all you like, but you can't get it out of your head, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that somehow it feels more genuinely the product of people Miley Cyrus's age than the presumed forty-somethings who otherwise crafted this project. Plus, Beach Boy harmonies come out of nowhere at key moment, and it kind of sounds like she swears in the chorus. So yay.

This song calls out to be put early on in the disc - it would seem out of place coming towards the end. So I kept it after "See You Again" as track three.

Let's Dance: keep (track seven)

This bizarre song attempts to shoehorn every musical genre on the planet into three minutes: from Spanish guitar runs to record-scratching turntablism. Of course, the song is as hopelessly lost as its component parts might suggest. Kudos to the Miley Cyrus organisation for trying something different, but ultimately it's just another song about dancing, and its exotic touches merely cover up more business-as-usual guitar-based pep-pop.

I put this weird little mess of a song after the mid-album ballad. It's the first of a three-song set of songs that are uptempo but lack the forward-thrust of the first five songs. Er... whatever. Track seven, anyway.

G.N.O. (Girls' Night Out): lose

More pompom-flailing pep-pop. Anyone who claims that there's a distinct feeling to the 'solo' disc over the Disney product here is kidding themselves. There's nothing that distinguishes this from the Hannah Montana stuff (except for an unfortunate pseudo-rap Gwen Stefani 'chant' section). It's just as bland as the blandest stuff there, too. Bland and cheesy at the same time. And it uses an initialism as its main background vocal, which is silly.

Right Here: keep (track five)

There isn't really anything, lyrically or musically, that makes this song stand out from the rest of the fare, but somehow, like the little train that could, I find myself rooting for this little underdog of a song. I think it's the song's relative lack of ambition and pretense. It's somehow charming, and it sticks on the mind in a non-cloying way after you've turned off the CD - or TV, I guess. Of course, one would like to hear it done by a more competent singer and more inspired group of musicians, but it does its job here. It's my 'choice cut', sorry Christgau.

It fits in with the general mood of the first half of my disc, but being a little bit softer in scope, it makes a good pivot point: the last of the sequence of forced-pep songs, the first in the sequence of more varied tones. So track five it is.

As I Am: lose

I dare you to find anything memorable about this song. It's not good, not bad. Not different, not overly similar. It's just... here. I've listened to it maybe a dozen times and I still don't take anything whatsoever from it.

Start All Over: lose

Yes, it's another derivative rip of 80s New wave - but this time it's not a take on post-punk or third-wave ska. It's... I'm not sure, exactly. It seems to derive itself from some of the most outré of early 80s groups. Sci-fi keyboards, angular melodies... how bizarre is it that a song that might have gotten play on 'alternative' radio stations twenty years ago is today a Disney product? But anyway, by the end of the song, Miley Cyrus is just shouting the title over and over again, and it's outworn its welcome.

Clear: keep (track eight)

This completely ridiculous song is a shoo-in for my single-album for the sheer fact of having a different sonic template. This actually has the gall to pretend it's a reggae song. As a reggae song, it's shockingly weak, and is definitely a kids' song. In fact, it's a weird mix of various Caribbean styles, with calypso steel pans, dub mixboard atmosphere, and a bizarre keyboard line that feels like it comes right out of a 1970s kids' TV show. It's not that memorable a composition either. But top points for daring, 18 songs in, to be even a little bit different.

This song just begs to be put in the Bermuda Triangle of the two-thirds-point of the album: that's where a genre exercise can arificially maintain interest before reaching the final stretch. So track eight it is.

Good and Broken: lose

If you prefer your Miley Cyrus to be filled with weird gibberish-y lyrics that make no real sense but say 'we can' an awful lot, look no further. The main conceit is that we are, apparently, 'broken chains' - good and, in fact. Whatever that means. Interesting to hear Miley Cyrus spouting weird lyrical nonsense, but ultimately it's just the words 'we can' way too many times, and musically it's back to business-as-usual.

I Miss You: keep (track eleven)

It takes a porn star's ability to suppress the gag reflex to stomach the idea of Miley Cyrus crooning a countryish ballad that she co-wrote herself as a tribute to her dead grandfather without losing your appetite entirely. But the fact remains that, like 'East Northumberland High', the childlike sentimentality of this song works in its favour. It's mawkish, it's gooey, but ultimately it's so disarmingly artless and sincere that resistance is futile. It's an album for kids, for Christ's sake. Let the grumpy old cynic ride at the back of the bus. Kids' grandparents die, and they need gooey pap to croon into their hairbrushes thereafter. Miley provides. Thank you, Miley.

Something this gooey would be a hard act to follow. Let's not let any tracks suffer that particular indignity. Let's call this one track 11, and the final track... excluding, of course, that ten minute stretch of silence and then the highly experimental untitled 'bonus track'... Just kidding. This is Disney, after all.

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