Nothing pairs so effortlessly with Disney child stardom as an eventual rebellion against it. There are countless examples of young Disney performers turning to scandals and substances to distance themselves from the Mouse. However, these manufactured personas are often as inauthentic as the overly wholesome, family-friendly characters from whom they’re running. But this overcorrection wasn’t the case for sisters Alyson and Amanda Joy Michalka, better known as Aly & AJ. Rather than posit themselves as something they weren’t, Aly and AJ took the time to discover precisely who they were.
After older sister Aly’s rise to prominence on the Disney television show Phil of the Future, the duo released two albums as teenagers before taking an extended break from music. They left their label, briefly experimented with the duo name 78Violet, and even planned to release a full-length album which was eventually leaked. Nothing quite seemed to stick until the release of Ten Years, the duo’s first EP in, well, you guessed it. After Sanctuary, a second EP, came the triumphant release of the first album they wrote as adults, a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun. The record encapsulated the sun-soaked, youthful vibes of their home state of California and leaned heavily into influences like Fleetwood Mac and Joni Mitchell.
In a music market where critics and consumers reward reinvention, Aly & AJ have shown subtle subversiveness in sinking even deeper into their sound. Fans who delighted in the 1970s-inspired soundscapes of their previous album will find even more to adore on With Love From, which brings the glittering kaleidoscopic imagery of a touch of the beat into grander cinematic relief. The album feels like a collection of postcards sent from various points along an epic road trip.
As with most postcards, With Love From’s dominant theme is transience and motion. It opens like a flower unfurling its petals towards the sun with the twinkling track, “Open to Something and That Something Is You”. It depicts a speaker running headlong into a new adventure, even as the past nips at her heels. The next song is one of With Love From’s strongest, the titular “With Love From”. It preceded With Love From as a single, capturing the dizzying feeling of losing grip on your identity while searching for it. During the bridge’s subtle crescendo, the speaker’s nearly stream-of-consciousness concerns and questions (“I’m kind of homesick, wish that I wasn’t / Looking for answers, hoping they’ll find me / Flirt with a moment just to ignore it / I’m getting nervous thinking about it / Why must we always live in a panic?”) underscore just how long the road that leads away from home can be. This could be read as a commentary on how far the sisters have traveled from the electronic-rock offerings of Insomniatic, their 2007 record.
But even if their new beach breeze, cruising-with-windows-down energy suits the Laurel Canyon natives, their comfort with their sound doesn’t always mean comfort with themselves. Like any road trip, With Love From has its fair share of uncertainty and crossroads. On another one of the record’s promotional singles, “After Hours”, stripped-back acoustic guitars that sound like they belong in a saloon score the story of a speaker juggling all her responsibilities and feelings of mania. It leans on cliche more heavily than the rest of the tunes, but its catchiness is undeniable.
A far more original take on self-loathing comes later with “Sunchoke”. Hazy, distorted electric guitars and synths play beneath some of With Love From‘s most vulnerable lyrics: “I can’t take more hits, I’ll disassociate from it / I should face my shit as uncomfortable as it is.” The chorus showcases the bright fullness of the sisters’ harmonies as they deliver one of the record’s most relatable sentiments: “I’m on the run / I’m so mad at myself I could choke the sun.”
Aly & AJ have a knack for making introspective moments like this feel as sprawling and cinematic as a desert sunset. Ultimately, the biggest triumphs in With Love From occur when they consider their connections to others. Another album stand-out is “Blue Dress”, a song as ethereal as any the sisters have released. It opens with a sort of Chekov’s gun; over lush waves of pedal steel guitar, the speaker croons, “I bought a blue dress for you, and I’ve got a new pair of shoes too.” As it progresses, the track details two lovers who appear to keep missing each other (“I don’t care who you’ve been kissin’ ’cause I’ve been doin’ some kissin’ too”), and the speaker’s growing impatience (“Who has time for new romance? It feels a shame to look this good if we never danced.”) But as with a loaded gun that must fire, what good is a brand new dress left unworn? When flourishing harmonies swell under soaring vocals on the line, “Here and now, with my blue dress on,” the resolution is so satisfying that one might almost believe in a love that’s meant to be.
This romantic sensibility continues to breathtaking effect in “Way of Nature Way of Grace” (featuring Joy Oladokun). With a stunning string arrangement from Emeka Emele Onuoha, the song’s reverent chorus conveys profound passion using sparse details and direct appeals to the senses (“I saw you on a high wire, a dance above a wildfire / It felt like something holy, just like you’d always known me”). When Oladokun’s richer timbre joins in, the song takes on the air of a church choir’s hymn. In five simple words, Aly & AJ sum up the theme of this entire project: “Love is on the move.”
While With Love From is not the most visionary pop record released in recent years, it doesn’t need to be. Aly & AJ have an unflinching and often wry songwriting style that is recognizably theirs. They may not have taken many risks with their sound since a touch of the beat, but the care with which they craft their soundscapes makes the argument that consistency doesn’t have to be boring. With Love From brings to mind a myriad of classic Americana imagery. Still, above all, it sounds like two women reveling in the joy of creating something representing who they are.