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.

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