Sunday, May 9, 2021

Review: A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then into The Sun • Aly & AJ

It’s October 2020. A global pandemic has crippled society for over half a year. While you have safely exited the Tiger King and whipped coffee era of quarantine, normality has collapsed into spending long days at home with a constant unsettling thought that this could last forever. You open your only source of entertainment and education, Tik Tok, and your For You Page is populated almost in its entirety with reactions, duets, and parodies of one video: Five moms in a bar, miming the lyrics out-of-sync to the 13-year-old “Potential Breakup Song.” With 86 million views and 11 million likes, the short form video is among the many to revive an unexpecting song: In the same way Generation Z learned about Fleetwood Mac and Nelly Furtado, they also learned about Aly & AJ Michalka – just as the sister duo prepared to release their first full-length record since 2007.

Of course it must sting to watch the song intercept plans for a new album without any control over its virality, especially given the song’s age and origins as a music video bumper between episodes of Wizards of Waverly Place and The Suite Life of Zach and Cody on Disney Channel. While Aly & AJ leaned into the song’s second-wave popularity with a re-recorded explicit dub, the sisters began writing a new chapter in their careers years ago when they reintroduced themselves as a streaming-era synthpop act – and now, they’ve reframed their musical goals once again with A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then into The Sun, a masterclass pop record that refracts hope, happiness, and passion through a West Coast prism.

In a holistic approach to pop music, A Touch of the Beat leverages uncomplicated, acoustic-based production and loose songwriting to reflect life’s ebbs and flows. The career-redefining statement piece “Pretty Places” traces coastlines and mountain ranges, the open landscapes into which they can retreat. An unexpected upward chord change transforms the song into a panoramic experience, emphasizing the song’s (and by extension, the album’s) thesis statement: “All the pretty places pull us away from where the pain is. These open skies, leaving the past behind, I would for all the pretty places.” The track’s romanticism bleeds through tracks that follow, as the sisters find new ways to express their love with equally poetic sentiments: “Slow Dancing” is an unexpectedly slow-burning ballad that suspends their feelings in a sweet hypnosis before unraveling into an easygoing guitar instrumental, while “Paradise” ignites love into a dreamy power ballad.

Aly & AJ weave behind translucent layers of western, disco, surf rock, and folk without cutting loose from the guitar-driven pop foundation built into the album's centermost tracks like “Listen!!!” and “Don’t Need Nothing,” where the album’s title becomes a singalong chant. One moment, they use “Lost Cause” to inch toward disco; the next, they pull in a horn solo for the groovy ‘70s cosplay “Break Yourself.” The closing two tracks, meanwhile, release the listener from the record’s grasp with a sense of finality. “Let’s leave this party right now. We never liked these people. They treat these lonely dance floors like personal cathedrals. Even diamonds here don’t shine,” the duo sings on “Personal Cathedrals,” a dusky country cut, before abandoning the backroads club for “Hold Out,” a soft landing spot to close the record. “Will you hold out your arms and catch me? Do you think that you’re strong enough?” they repeat as a cycling duet.

With a huge canyon of time between Aly & AJ’s last album and this one, most folks have given A Touch of the Beat an honorary “comeback album” stamp – a type of record that, frankly, doesn’t often compete in the same bracket as its idealized predecessors despite high anticipation. Soaring well above any pressure to recreate their past lives as teen pop-rockers, this record doesn’t at all listen like one with anything to prove. The album spills out in impassioned one-liners and balanced vocal work between Aly & AJ, carrying itself with the same natural progression in which it was produced: Life happens, people grow, and eventually, some beauty can be made of it all. If a record takes 14 years to produce, so be it – but the end product should always be as inexplicably spotless as A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then into The Sun.

A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun is available now under Aly & AJ Music LLC.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Review: Typhoons • Royal Blood

In a pre-release trailer, Royal Blood’s Mike Kerr described the duo’s third record better than anyone else could: “Typhoons is kind of about recognizing you can’t change the storm, and you can’t fight back against it. And it’s about outlasting it, and sitting in it, and waiting for it to pass.” With a career-infringing addiction in the rear view and a global pandemic teetering toward its hopeful resolution, Kerr might have crawled out soaking wet – but at least he could capture his endurance through a dance rock journal that adds some color and dimension to the duo’s music.

To fulfill the album’s mission, danceable intentions twist around the band’s established rock sound and launch it into a tailspin. Compared to the band’s previous two albums, their bass riffs have become less disruptive and more attune to rhythm – an important evolution for a group that frames up songs with only bass and drum studs. Animated bass work is the record’s crowning feature. It provides incredible texture to the title track – perhaps one of the most interesting here – and provides an aggressive groundwork for “Boilermaker,” a dizzying look into Kerr’s addiction: “Don’t put all your money on me, ‘cause you and me are two of a kind. Going in blind, I’m all mixed up,” he shoots through a clean falsetto.

The band has also learned the infectiousness of repetition: “Trouble’s Coming” and “Limbo” were given single treatments because they best capitalize on their own relentless melodic and lyrical loops. The strongest moments like these effortlessly breeze the band away from clear-cut rock and into a more progressive space. “Mad Visions” might pass as a Tame Impala track if its bass were swapped for some psychedelic synths; “Limbo” even closes on said synths. And at their least inspired, as on something like the half-hearted “Either You Want It” and the mid-tempo chore “Who Needs Friends,” they simply sound as if they’re resting on the same sounds in preparation for the album’s next outburst – and if that’s the worst they have to offer, I’d say they battled the storm just fine.

Typhoons is available now under Warner Records.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Review: Californian Soil • London Grammar


Atop a floating pyre as a deep blue storm looms behind her, Hannah Reid of English trio London Grammar doesn’t channel the American West Coast with the same intentions as most: “I left my soul on Californian soil, and I left my pride with that woman by my side,” she opens with the title track of their third record, Californian Soil. Tattered visions of America are projected to flip idealism on its head: While the band sought the truth on their last release, Reid uses this one to reflect upon having found it. In addition to purging unhealthy relationships and kindling love for others and herself, she explores the misogynistic consequences attached to navigating the industry and demanding autonomy at the helm of a music career.

Restoring house influences to London Grammar’s otherwise somber pop music, Californian Soil masters everything the band’s previous record, while a fantastic effort in its own right, managed to circumvent. The band shoots subtle electronic cacophonies over dark, distant acoustics, which cultivates a moody environment that transcends each genre they sample. Digital sparklers illuminate the midnight background in tight, white hot streams: The clanging samples on “Baby It’s You,” for one, lighten its longing. “Missing” is as much a haunting campfire song as a downscaled dance song stripped of its adornments. Elsewhere, the snappy junglebeat loop and deep bass bedrock in “I Need the Night” intensify its mysterious darkness: “Take all your limbs and wrap them ‘round your neck, so they all laugh at your predicament,” Reid sings before retreating from her taxing profession and into the night.

With instrumentalists Dot Major and Dan Rothman, Reid creates a musical landscape to soften the blow that her stark lyrics and sturdy contralto can deliver, largely without relaxing into a sleepy mid-tempo territory. At the album’s halfway mark, the band’s uncharacteristically danceable pillar stands: “How does it feel now you’re alone? How does it feel to feel low?” Reid asks before “How Does It Feel” ignites with a strong bass groove in a celebratory role reversal. “Lose Your Head,” one of the record’s best, manages handclap syncopation beneath its story of manipulation. More often, though, the music crescendos with gradual pacing, allowing her melodies to marinate as the songs work their way to their climaxes. The band's impeccable sense of musical balance provides a picturesque landing spot for listeners to sit with London Grammar for a while: The view can be devastating yet so graceful.

Californian Soil is available now under Ministry of Sound.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall