A lot can happen in fourteen years. Time moves exponentially faster in the world of pop music, so the timeline of Aly & AJ’s musical career is a bit shocking in retrospect. The sister duos last proper album, Insomniatic, was released back in 2007, and in the interim, they’ve put out two EPs and an updated explicit version of their timeless hit “Potential Breakup Song.” A mainstay on Disney Channel, the sisters have always understood the essence of pop music: gut-punching relatability compressed into slick hooks and melodies. From “Rush” to “Like Woah,” Aly & AJ have been ahead of the curve from the beginning of their mainstream musical careers. Their new album, the whimsically titled A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun, finds the duo pivoting towards a more breezy Americana-influenced sound with the perfect amount of sunshine as we begin our staggered return to pre-pandemic life.
A Touch of the Beat is essentially a warm summer breeze in audio form. The luscious guitars, surprisingly gentle synths, and expressive vocal performances feel like a tight and reassuring embrace. The album balances influences from a slew of genres including country, 80s pop, soft rock, Americana, and surf rock — a far cry from the assertive pure pop of their Disney days and the synthpop of those two interim EPs as 78violet. The atmospheric “Pretty Places” opens the album with an ode to escapism. Like many albums that were created and released during the height of quarantine life, the grim and uncomfortable new reality of our lives implicitly and explicitly impacted the music. On A Touch of the Beat, a similar thing is happening except Aly & AJ are exalting the sunnier days ahead and the little things that truly make life worthwhile. These sentiments drive “Don’t Need Nothing,” the song from which the album’s lengthy title was derived. Between the chants of “A touch of the beat/Gets you up on your feet/Gets you out and then into the sun” and the dynamic drums and guitars, “Don’t Need Nothing” unlocks a level of whimsy and magic that is unmatched. The repetition on this track doubles as a form of manifestation; Aly & AJ are summoning the power of music to reach a new level of happiness and escapism in spite of what is going on outside of their own domain. The rhythmic chants of the titular phrase are almost Shakespearean in the way that they evoke the feeling of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth. “Don’t Need Nothing” flexes the duo’s melodic skills, while songs like the stunning “Personal Cathedrals” flaunt their penchant for a more poetic approach to their songwriting. For instance, “Bleeding sunset on a desert view/A sea of cocktails but every drink is empty” may just be one of the best opening lines of the year.
One of the greatest strengths of this album is how carefully the tracklisting was arranged. The best song on the album, “Slow Dancing” is a tender pandemic love song whose greatness is only exacerbated by the subsequent song, “Paradise.” “Slow Dancing” finds Aly & AJ singing a story of cherishing romance wherever they can, especially when forced separation inserts itself into the relationship. They allude to the pandemic (“It’s been days and weeks and months/Feels like forever since I saw you”) and other crises (“I’ve got my reasons to complain/And they’re tangled in red, white, and blue”), but their exaltation of love and simplicity are what make the song so outstanding. The organ and cello are gorgeous additions to the song’s soundscape, but it’s the tender saxophone that really elevates the track. On the other hand, “Paradise” trades in this analog instrumentation for a more potent synth-driven package of pure pop. Clearly influenced by the flirtatious vocal performance and bombastic choruses of Carly Rae Jepsen, “Paradise” is an ode to the personal place of solace that the sisters and their lovers created for themselves in “Slow Dancing.” With these two songs, the duo allows their narratives to expand throughout multiple tracks without being confined to one singular sound. They dabble in synthpop on “Paradise,” funk influences on “Lost Cause,” and rock on “Listen!!!”
A Touch of the Beat is a testament to the benefits of having fewer cooks in the kitchen. Unlike blockbuster pop albums that bring in an all-star team of producers and writers, Aly & AJ either wrote every track by themselves or with one or two other writers. Furthermore, Yves Rothman served as the producer and engineer for every single track on the album. This tight team helps A Touch of the Beat reach a level of cohesiveness that most artists would envy. The album is cohesive from a sonic standpoint as well as a narrative one. There is a clear progression of emotions from the temptation of the sublime “Symptom of Your Touch” to the jealousy-tinged “Lucky To Get Him” and the utterly devastating “Stomach.” A heartbreaking ballad about the weeks after a divorce once reality truly starts to sink in, “Stomach” is one of the most stunning songs of the year. The staccato delivery in the hook makes every lyric (“All these memories, they don’t feel like mine/I just can’t stomach being your ex-wife”) cut deeper and sets the stage for the howling guitar in the bridge.
Fourteen years in the making, A Touch of the Beat is an absolute triumph. Aly & AJ were pure magic back in the mid-00s on Disney Channel, and they’re even more intriguing and self-assured now in 2021.
Key Tracks: “Slow Dancing” | “Symptom of Your Touch” | “Stomach” | “Don’t Need Nothing”