Monday, May 13, 2019

Review: Sanctuary • Aly & AJ

Welcome to the age of Millennial nostalgia: As the entertainment industry squeezes a profit from it, society has been inundated with remakes of movies, age-progressed television reboots, and bands revived from the dusty stack of Radio Disney archives. In 2019, a Full House sequel will enter its final season, Tiffany released a fresh take on "I Think We're Alone Now," and the Jonas Brothers have returned with a full-length effort, an extended arena tour, and a fervor even more intense than that of their purity ring era. Dizzying, isn’t it?

Prior to hearing their newest material, it would be easy to write off Aly & AJ Michalka as a sibling act revived with ulterior financial motives. But their 2017 extended play, Ten Years, and their newest release, Sanctuary, are far from nostalgia-pandering: Rather, they listen as Aly & AJ's solid attempts to carve a place in the pop landscape as adult musicians, issued as independent releases and somewhat detached from their former lives as teens with guitars. (However, it was quite nice to watch them stumble their way through "Potential Breakup Song," a forever favorite, on a karaoke machine a few years back.)

Birthed in the era of children’s television during which every actress became a musician for the hell of it, the duo was one of the lesser promoted acts in the Walt Disney library – perhaps because Aly's time as a Disney Channel star was short-lived, and AJ's was nearly nonexistent. The media, however, found an ill-guided angle in press junkets through Aly & AJ's religion, as they were one of the few young acts to cite their faith and found their way onto Christian rock radio. To a degree, the stigma remains – a recent profile was published under the headline "Religious Faith, Being Gay Icons, and Cow Belles 2" – but now more than ever before, the R-rated Aly & AJ aren't to be mistaken as a chintzy Christian pop act.

Small but potent, Sanctuary is a five-track fever dream of pastel synthesizers and polished hooks. As their digitized vocals emerge from a haze and into a sparkling instrumental break, Aly & AJ plead for forgiveness on "Church," the most current-minded cut of the bunch. The rest of the tracks boast more traditional pop choruses. The melodies of "Not Ready to Wake Up" and the title track are undeniably evergreen, bubbling with the innocent excitement of a great teen pop track, while the deep drums and punchy chorus on "Don't Go Changing" are rewarding returns on investment for the song's otherwise minimalist structure.

Though they changed their collective name to 78violet and did close to nothing under the moniker for years, it still feels like Aly & AJ never left us after their last full-length record, released in 2007. In place of music, their respective acting careers took precedent – and AJ admits that her time spent on long-running sitcom The Goldbergs left Aly to make the executive decisions on this record. And that could help explain why their return to music has been simmering nicely, as compared to the rolling boil in the Jonas camp. But damn, even with the lack of major label support and their careers divided by television, these women give pop music a fighting chance.

Sanctuary is available now independently.

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