Release Date: May 7th 2021
Reviewed by: Joshua Andre
- Pretty Places
- Lost Cause
- Break Yourself
- Slow Dancing
- Symptom Of Your Touch
- Lucky To Get Him
- Don’t Need Nothing
- Personal Cathedrals
- Hold Out
If there’s any upside to the pandemic at all, I’d say that it is the quality time that we all spend at home. As we all are spending some quality time with our parents, family and friends (over Zoom), as well as ample time to find us all a hobby or a passion; perhaps we will find ourselves becoming more empathetic, kind and compassionate to others, as we discover different perspectives and worldviews. Or maybe we’ll dive deeper into music and movies not necessarily within our preferred ‘genre’, and hence possibly find new favourites, as we strengthen our own views or try to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. This past year alone has been where I found I’ve grown the most in my faith in Jesus and in seeing the world through others who do not have the same world view as me; and that has mostly been due to me taking a risk and listening to (and reviewing) mainstream music that I would never have touched with a ten-foot pole even a year ago. The other day I reviewed Teddy Swims’ Unlearning and The Veronicas’ GODZILLA and those types of releases were even unfathomable to me even 6 months ago. But as God speaks to me through even the most unpredictable and unimaginable of sources (reminding me that He is God and He can do what He likes!), so too am I choosing to allow Him to speak more through the unexpected. And this is exactly what has happened again with Aly & AJ’s a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun– which I will now refer to as ‘a touch of the beat’ because… that title is a mouthful! Both Aly and AJ Michalka are icons and legends in their own right- having been Disney stars when they were younger, and having released pop albums in the 2000’s. For anyone else who may not know about them… I guess that’s fine. Because as a duo, they aren’t that popular at the moment. But this new project reminds us that people grow and that it’s never too late to make a comeback, while also reminding us that it’s never too late to chase your dreams. I’ve personally found this album to be one of the most lyrically profound and inspiring throughout this year… and it goes to show you that I need to abandon my preconceived ideas of what good music should sound like. I think all of us need to do that as well.
If you’re up to date with music and movies, that you probably know that AJ was in the TV shows The Goldbergs and Schooled, and the faith-based film Grace Unplugged; while Aly is probably the more recognisable sister, having acted in movies like Easy A, Bandslam, and The Roommate as well as TV shows like iZombie, Hellcats, Two And A Half Men and MacGyver. Music-wise, these girls released 2 studio albums (Into The Rush in 2005, and Insomniatic in 2007), while Ten Years (2017) and Sanctuary (2019) dropped as EP’s. So the girls have always been around, but never fully in the spotlight for us all to notice them and really be in awe of their prowess as singers and actors. Could you say that a touch of the beat is like a second debut album in one sense. Maybe… but nonetheless, this project is the first full length album in 14 years for the sibling duo, and what the girls have learnt throughout that time, and everything they’ve lived through; form the basis thematically and lyrically for this album. In that regard, I’d say treat this like a debut album… and once you do, then you can experience how lyrically impacting and profound these songs are. And as we navigate this pandemic hopefully relatively unscathed… let us be moved by Aly and AJ’s near masterpiece, as good as a ‘debut’ album as you can get.
We happened to be artists on a label who were writing our own music, and there weren’t a lot of artists who were at that time. Miley [Cyrus] and Demi [Lovato], they had kind of come in right after us and I know they write their own stuff or at least collaborate with people. But we were kind of our own thing. We were a bit of an anomaly over there. And I think that’s why our time there was hard, because we were women, writing music, very young, asking to collaborate with people outside of our genre. The label was confused and taken aback by our brazen ambition. We had a lot of difficult conversations with them over the years and ultimately our partnership had to end because we just weren’t on the same page. But we’re very grateful for the launching pad they did give us.
People don’t want to see their childhood idol grow up, and that can be really hard to navigate. Because you do want to grow up and you do want to spread your wings, but you’re trying not to do it too fast. AJ and I were able to do that a little bit more in the privacy of our own homes, and it wasn’t quite as exploited as it was for others. I’m grateful for that.
We’re a very tightknit small family, only two siblings. We’ve done everything together since we were kids and just knew at an early age that we wanted to entertain, and we wanted to do it together. We didn’t know this would ever lead to something professional. Our music really started when we picked up the guitar and piano, and that’s when we started writing songs. I can’t really see us ever having a solo career or working on something alone. We’re very much in this together. And there’s something really special about that, sharing this with someone who gets it.
The whole reason we didn’t release [a touch of the beat] in 2020 is, we knew that was a really hard year for a lot of people. We didn’t want to release this joyous, upbeat record during that time; where we can show positivity and light- 2021 felt like the year to tell that story.
With Aly & AJ’s a touch of the beat being more singer/songwriter and acoustic and folk than pop… this release is similar to something from Andrew Peterson, John Mayer and Needtobreathe. And that’s actually a good thing, as a touch of the beat highlights the duo’s versatility and the fact that it’s more than ok if for different genres of music to hit us all equally hard. Opening track “Pretty Places” is an acoustic guitar led 5-minute anthemic ballad, and speaks about the simpler times and the times where we all are happy. Obviously a song about escapism that is fitting as we all want to run away from this pandemic, both Aly and AJ earnestly relay to us that sometimes we need to look outside and retreat from our concrete jungles to fully experience creation and the wonder of everything around us, as ‘…all the pretty places pull us away from where the pain is, these open skies, leaving the past behind…’. Reminding us all that there is beauty and joy in the simpler things in life, “Pretty Places” starts this album off with a bang, and the whimsical yet deep tracks continue. “Lost Cause” speaks about wanting to recapture the spark of their youth, but realising that that [art of their life is over for the time being- it’s a bittersweet song that one could interpret to be about growth as artists over the 14 year hiatus period, and now not fitting in that pop mould that some listeners still want them to be immersed in (or is this song about deconstruction?); while “Break Yourself Away”, a haunting and hopeful melody with plenty of 80’s undertones, inspires us to try to break away from the situations where we feel stuck in or the situations that bring us down- either on our own or with help.
One of the most emotional and vulnerable songs on the album is “Slow Dancing”. A track that vividly depicts the intensity of a love for another, we are met with the much needed song during this pandemic, as the duo passionately cry out that ‘…I want you to know, I don’t need anything fancy, I just need me and you slow dancing, hell’s bending, keeping me captive, heaven’s here, it’s right where you’re standing, slow dancing…’; while the captivating and compelling “Paradise”, an album highlight, speaks about the notion of trying to find paradise, yet not wanting to stay there once we reach such a place. And as the duo eloquently relay to us: There’s this fantastic quote from Henry Miller’s book Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch that inspired the meaning of this song. Basically, it is about the yearning of wanting paradise, but not being brave enough to stay once you’ve actually reached it. It’s based on how visitors coming out to Big Sur don’t really have the courage to live out a life of paradise. They go back to their own life once they’ve been out there for a few days—where paradise is actually achievable. Paradise is tangible, we just are never brave enough to actually live it; we are encouraged to enjoy the beautiful things of this earth and be thankful and grateful that we can enjoy creation and the stars and the trees and the bird and the animals. People these days are easily displeased… and this song should bring us back to the wonder of being amazed and happy again- we could surely use some happiness in our lives, and “Paradise” (so much better than Coldplay’s song of the same name!) is one such a song that brings a smile to our faces.
“Symptom Of Your Touch”, a song depicting a toxic relationship in which the persona subconsciously falls back into because of the familiarity of it, encourages us to take stock of our habits and to try to change them if we don’t like who we are or who we’re becoming because of them (companion piece to Ed Sheeran’s “Bad Habits”?); while the soothing acoustic guitar and keys led “Lucky To Get Him” is an advice type of inspirational song- a track that imparts wisdom from one generation to the next, especially in the realm of dating and being grateful for the partner you have than being jealous of the potential partner that you will never have. The song is like a wake-up call if you feel like slipping; and both Aly and AJ deserve special commendation on this song- mostly because the song itself doesn’t feel cheesy at all! While the guitar led rock anthem “Listen!!!” harkens back to the sounds of Delirious? and U2, and features Aly and AJ emotionally and enthusiastically recounting at feeling lost in a relationship or in a system of beliefs- trapped in dogmatic religion and rules, maybe; and then in the end finding the courage and the realisation to move away from what tied you down. Is this a song about deconstruction away from organised religion or even away from Christianity all-together? Maybe, but this song also reminds us that we don’t have to stay in anything that is destructive just because it’s seemingly safe. With friends, family and God by our side, we can live in freedom away from anything trying to control us.
The fun, happy go lucky, rock anthem “Don’t Need Nothing” is next, and is the pseudo-title track. As Aly and AJ fervently relay to us that sometimes decluttering from the world, and stepping back from the hustle and bustle; they also relay that they ‘don’t need nothing’ and that their happiness comes from within: We took the album title from the chorus lyrics. It felt like this was the pinnacle song of the record. It sums up the message, too: It’s a song with a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a response to anguish and the fact that we feel like we need so many things in life. We need our friends, our family, and the things that truly make us happy, which usually aren’t physical possessions. It’s usually experiences. “Stomach”, thought heartbreaking and painful, is a confronting ballad that we all need to listen to, as this track talks about the extreme feelings of apathy and hatred that could development between partners before they break up- and is a reminder that we all need to treat our loves ones with respect and dignity, especially our spouses; while the penultimate song on a touch of the beat is the 80’s themed alternative rock tune “Personal Cathedrals”, where Aly and AJ detail their feelings of isolation and disconnectedness with the ‘in’ group in parties- and outline that they don’t fit in in the midst of Hollywood- a song that is personal to the nth degree. a touch of the beat then ends with the only true ‘ballad’ on the project- “Hold Out”, led by the stirring acoustic guitar, whereby the persona sings out to a friend or a family member or even to God, asking for a lifeline and a rescue. With this song presumably being about mental health or even asking someone for help when you feel down; this song is very much needed in this pandemic, and reminds us that help isn’t too far away, and that we only need to ask. As the sisters ask ‘…will you catch me? Will you hold out your arms and catch me? Do you think that you’re strong enough?…’; we are met with one of the most vulnerable songs on the album, and a track that is sure to provide discussion about God, Jesus and everything else related to that- even if that was the intention or not.
I think we did feel that way [staying innocent] for many years. I think with creating this record, we feel like we’ve kind of broken free of that. As a young artist, there’s a lot of pressure to give the audience what they want. But you also are growing as an artist and, especially if you’re a teenager, you’re going through so many emotions. It can be really confusing and hard to please other people, but also please yourself at the same time.
We’ve learned that you don’t really ultimately need to prove yourself to people. You need to just do your best for yourself. It’s a lot easier said than done. Ultimately, if you’re following your truth and your path, that’s going to lead you to a good place, even if other people don’t really see how or why you’re going that way.
I think it’s important that we’re not frozen in time. I know, people see us as one thing — oh, the girls that were in Cow Belles and Phil of the Future. And that’s great! I love that a new generation can discover that stuff because of Disney+ and TikTok.
But I also feel like it’s my and Aly’s job to move forward. We’re artists, we’re creators, and it’s not about living in the past. It’s about creating a new future and adding to the career we’ve already started. I think you have to be cognizant of not freezing at the highest popularity moment you had in your career, moving beyond that and saying, “Okay, this next chapter might not be as popular as that last chapter but it’s what’s keeping things interesting for me and my family.” Down the road, your fans listen to that record as a discovery and go, “Oh, they didn’t just make Insomniac 2.0. They made something I wasn’t expecting and I’m really happy they did!”
Call Aly & AJ ‘Aly & AJ 2.0’, or call them whatever you want. The fact of the matter is that this album, though predominately slower-paced musically, is refreshing in a great number of ways… and it’s unexpected in a good way, as these girls have deviated far away from what they’re musically known for. While a touch of the beat is in fact needed during this pandemic as we are introduced to songs about identity and about wanting help and about being true to what you believe in; some would say that this album is too ‘airy-fairy’ and ‘wishy-washy’. But I will say this. Sure, every song on this album won’t resonate with you. But there is something there for each of you. Songs like “Paradise” “Hold Out”, “Pretty Places” and “Don’t Need Nothing” all bring a smile to my face, and make each day all the more brighter. If only for that… I reckon everyone should listen to this project. There will be one thing that will make your day. Am I too presumptuous to say ‘I guarantee it’? Well done Ally & AJ, I can’t wait to hear what God has in store for you next! Maybe a live album or a covers album?
3 songs to listen to: Pretty Places, Paradise, Hold Out
RIYL: Needtobreathe, Ben Rector, Hanson, Sara Bareilles, Ronan Keating, Switchfoot, Jon Foreman