Aly & AJ – Into The Rush

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Part I: The Background

By 2005, the Michalka sisters had already landed a handful of television and film roles, with Aly Michalka most notably starring as Keely on Disney Channel’s Phil of the Future. Like many other Disney Channel stars, Aly was also musically inclined. But rather than embarking on a career as a solo artist, she formed a duo with her sister AJ, and together they signed to Disney’s Hollywood Records. A year prior, Disney star Hilary Duff released and recorded a cover of The Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed” with her sister Haylie. But while the Duff sisters’ duet wasn’t much more than a gimmick, Aly and AJ Michalka’s creative chemistry made them a standout music act, and their knack for songwriting along with their unique vocal blend made them one of the few Disney Channel artists who deserved to be taken seriously. “Into The Rush” is, very much, a teen pop album, but the songwriting and performances hint at something much greater; even on their debut, Aly & AJ were beginning to break free from the aura of prefabrication that surrounded so many of their peers. The initial release contained 14 tracks, but in 2006, a 17-track deluxe edition of the album was released, with rerecorded versions of the songs “Something More” and “Collapsed” in addition to a few more recent compositions, including the single “Chemicals React”. The deluxe edition is, by far, the definitive version of the album, so that’s the one we’re going to be looking at.

 

Part II: The Music

Chemicals React: The deluxe edition of the album kicks off with the single Chemicals React, hands-down the strongest track on the album. The sentimental guitar arpeggios during the Aly’s verse evokes that magical feeling of being head-over-heels in love, while the choruses are bursting with pop punk energy. And from that point on, the song becomes a rock song; the electric guitar sticks around for AJ’s verse, and the pop rock aesthetic doesn’t let up during the middle eight. This is very much a teenaged love song; it’s a song about falling in love so hard that you’re terrified out of your mind, that it feels like you’re, well, “walking on broken glass” or “drifting out to the sea.” Sure, there’s an abundance of lyrical clichés: “But the planets all aligned / When you looked into my eyes.” But there are also a couple of neat images to contrast those clichés: “Kaleidoscope of colours / Turning hopes on fire.” In terms of aesthetic, this song is textbook mid-2000s, and, hey, I’ve got a soft spot for that era. Sue me. RATING: 10/10

Shine: This song displays Aly & AJ’s artistic versatility. During the verses, this song’s decidedly an R&B song, and the girls pull off the vocal style flawlessly. The pre-chorus, a dreamy acoustic breakdown, features an even more compelling melody, though it’s the radiant, rippling chorus that knocks this song out of the park (or is it the thrilling key shift at the end of the song?). The song’s lyrically ambiguous: is it about romantic love? Friendship? Or is it a Christian rock song? Either way, it’s a concise, masterfully-crafted tune with enough melody and texture that it never feels schmaltzy despite having some heavy adult contemporary leanings. RATING: 9/10

Never Far Behind: This sounds like the type of song you’d hear on a YA movie soundtrack. The verses have a slightly haunting feel to them, largely due to the piano overlaid on top of the acoustic guitar. Once again, the chorus transitions into full-on pop rock, this time with an Avril Lavigne flavour. Another solid composition with a slick arrangement and memorable melodies. RATING: 8/10

Something More: The original version of this song is has a very sappy, adult contemporary–leaning arrangement, though the power pop chorus offers a welcome contrast to the verses. The newer version has much livelier verses, which are backed by another R&B-influenced drum beat; the contrast between the verses and choruses carries over from the previous version, and this time, the song work’s a lot better. But this is typical Disney pop—quality, yes, but nothing particularly noteworthy here. RATING: 6.5/10

Collapsed: While “Something More” was an improvement over the original, the same can’t be said for “Collapsed”. The original just has more attitude; the electric guitar riff during the chorus is much more engaging than the muted chords in the newer version. The original also has a some nice synth parts that adds some nice texture to the arrangement. But I did say we’re reviewing the deluxe edition, didn’t I? I guess I’ll have to dock some points for misguided meddling. RATING: 6/10

Rush: This hard-rocking teen pop anthem opens the standard edition of the album. The same tactics are in play here: soft acoustic pluckings backed by processed drums during the verses, which gradually crescendo into an explosive pop rock chorus. It’s a song about being comfortable in your own skin, and while the message may be delivered in a manner that might seem elementary to more mature ears, you have to remember that this is music for tweens: “Don’t let nobody tell you your life is over / Be every colour that you are.” RATING: 7.5/10

No One: An acoustic ballad that crosses that line into soft-rock/adult-contemporary territory (isn’t it odd how frequently that phrase keeps popping up in a review of what’s supposed to be a teen pop album?). The chorus lacks a distinctive hook or a contrasting arrangement, so the song seems to meander. This is a very 90s-sounding tune. Nothing above average here. RATING: 3.5/10

On the Ride: Thankfully, we get another pop rock song here. There’s the slightest hint of a country rock vibe to this one. The chorus boasts another standout melody (and AJ’s solo vocal tag at the end of the choruses provides an additional hook—there’s a distinctness to her voice that makes her vocals the more interesting of the two). In “On the Ride” we get another lyrically ambiguous tune. It’s definitely an inspirational song: “Always knowing we’re gonna be fine / Feeling great and feeling alive / Never coming down from this mountain we’re on.” The vagueness of the lyrics makes the message of the song easily applicable to whatever the listener’s going through. A bit of a cop-out, but effective nonetheless. RATING: 7/10

In a Second: Here’s another acoustic ballad, and this one’s much better than the last one. The acoustic guitar and gentle vocals give the song a dreamy feel, and the high notes really resonate during the chorus. Shame about the sappy, straightforward lyrics. The aesthetic really shines here; the arrangement and the simple harmonies get you feeling all sentimental, elevating an otherwise mediocre composition. RATING: 6.5/10

Speak for Myself: This time, we’ve got a pop rock song from start to finish. Actually, there’s a bit of an alternative vibe going on. The drums in particular have a very crisp sound. “Speak For Myself” is another positive message song, so it’s hit or miss depending on whether or not you can tolerate that sort of thing. RATING: 5/10

Out of the Blue: Yet another formulaic pop rock tune, but one with some solid melodies to back it up. Of the songs that constitute the back half of this album, this one’s got one of the catchier choruses. It’s a song about a boy who’s dumped the singer because she doesn’t live up to the opinion of his friends—a typical teenaged scenario, I suppose. So the lyrics are a bit angsty. Try to ignore them. The tune’s all right. RATING: 6.5/10

I Am One of Them: This is a tough one. I commend Aly & AJ for writing this song, but I can’t say that I like it very much either. The lyrics take priority here. The song’s about child kidnappings; the singer laments the fates of these children while realizing that she’s just like them, and therefore just as vulnerable. It establishes a link between the victims and the singer (as well as the audience); it discourages turning a blind eye to the suffering of our peers. The simultaneously reflective and confrontational lyrics really make you feel something. So it feels petty to grumble about the melodies. Then again, perhaps that’s intentional—this is the sort of song you’re supposed to listen to rather than sing along to, so a catchy hook would detract from the message. In the booklet that comes with the CD, Aly & AJ dedicate the album “to all of the missing children and to the memory of the ones who are no longer with us.” RATING: 6/10

Sticks and Stones: This is the only song that’s truly worth sticking around for after you’re through with the front half of the album. It’s an anti-bullying song with lyrics that reflect a desperate sense of helplessness… at first. The chorus turns the song on its head, twice. “Sticks and stones won’t break my soul / Get out of the way, I’m invincible / Throw them down, ’cause the one you want’s not around.” First, the singer defiantly declares that they won’t let anyone bring them down, refusing to be the victim any longer. But then they reach out to their tormentor, implying that bullies are only lashing out because they themselves are in pain. That’s not a unique sentiment, but there’s something powerful about the way the lyrics phrase it—particularly the “throw them down” bit that plays around with the sticks and stones metaphor. This song also has another excellent AJ vocal hook—there’s something really unique about the vocal tone she produces when she sings “not for gain” just before the second iteration of the chorus. That’s easily my favourite couple of seconds on the entire album.  RATING: 9/10

Protecting Me: An ode to somebody who’s always there for you. Kind of dull, this one. At least the actions here are reciprocal: at the end of the song, the lyrics change from “you’ll protect me” to “I’ll protect you”. That’s probably the only redeeming quality to this otherwise forgettable song. RATING: 3/10

Slow Down: The last original composition on the album is convincingly pop punk—you could easily imagine, say, Paramore performing this song. Aly & AJ can really rock, and this song doesn’t disappoint. It doesn’t quite live up to the front half of the album, but it’s a decent album track at least. RATING: 5/10

Do You Believe In Magic: Ugh. I don’t hold this against Aly & AJ themselves; reimagining these classic tunes for an audience of preteens is trademark Disney MO. This one was recorded for the movie “Now You See It…” starring Aly. It’s mostly awful. Sunshine pop made sickening by a modern arrangement. Can we move on yet? RATING: 2/10

Walking On Sunshine: This one was for “Herbie: Fully Loaded”. You know, that crappy Lindsay Lohan film that left a blot on one of my favourite film series from my childhood. Anyway, this cover isn’t as bad. I mean, this was a cheesy song to begin with. At least Aly & AJ bring a little energy to the table this time. And look—Disney sprung for some horns! RATING: 3/10

 

PART III: The Album

Aly_&_AJ_-_Into_the_Rush_(deluxe_edition)

Aesthetic: The production’s quite interesting—especially on the deluxe edition. It takes elements of soft rock, pop rock, pop punk, and R&B and throws them all together into something polished and made to be easily accessible. Despite that, there is a bit of a rough edge to the album when you compare it to what some of Aly & AJ’s peers were putting out at the time. The repetitive arrangements and song structures do become a little stale towards the end of the album, however. Neither the standard nor deluxe edition album cover is memorable; they both look like greatest hits covers. “Into the Rush” is an evocative title though. I’m not sure the album lives up to it. SCORE: 2/5

Artistic Merit: The girls are budding artists here—there are hints scattered throughout the album at what they become, but the album is still very grounded within that teen pop/rock sound. SCORE: 1/5

Flow: This album’s got none. Whoever compiled the deluxe edition deserves to be fired. The new recordings easily outshine the rest of the album. So when you stack all of them at the beginning of the album, followed directly by the lead single, you end up with an overwhelmingly top-heavy album. I’m always tempted to stop listening after “Rush” is over. What I will say for the sequencing, though, is that it does a good job of balancing the ballads with the more rock-oriented tracks, preventing the album from falling into too much of a lull. Unfortunately, ending the album with two subpar cover tracks completely destroys any integrity it might’ve otherwise had. SCORE: 1/10

CLOSING REMARKS: When you listen to this album, what you hear is potential. There are a fair number of standout tracks, and the filler isn’t particularly offensive. Aly & AJ refuse to fall into the pop star mould, instead speaking from their hearts and making creative choices that wound up preventing them from becoming pop sensations like, say, Miley Cyrus, but ultimately led them down the road to becoming much better artists.

FINAL SCORE: 53

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