Talk about weird cultural doppelgängers: The last couple of months have seen the release of CDs by two sibling acts in an accidental double-niche-genre face-off: The Con by fashionista hipster lesbian twins Tegan and Sara and Insomniatic by Christian teen-pop queens Aly & AJ, 18-year-old Alyson Michalka and her two-year-younger sis, Amanda Joy.
Both are transitional recordings hitting the racks at a crucial moment in both genres. Indie has ossified into a clutch of subgenres stagnant in their inherent stylistic conservatism: the strip-mining of exhausted references (the Velvets, Joy Division, My Bloody Valentine, Gang of Four, assorted ’80s new wavers), studied amateurism and reliance on retro sonic signifiers. (Or in the case of the latest by the Arcade Fire and the Killers, it’s a matter of simulating Springsteen in the hope of broadening market share.) Teen pop, meanwhile, keeps benefiting from its post–Brill Building creative process by committee as it gleefully rummages through pop history to loot and reconfigure source elements to create a deliriously entertaining production line of Pro-Tooled Frankenstein monster pop. While indie sells “authenticity” and the presumed superiority of creative birthing in the garage, what we usually get in a duel of the genres is a choice between self-penned mediocrity and a great record.
Which brings us to both sister acts’ newest Mylar, which finds Tegan and Sara trying to do something more user-friendly with their creepy perfect stretched-elastic soprano harmonies, sing-along-averse melodies and hip detachment, and Aly & AJ giddily building on past brilliance. Without getting too deep into the opposing artists’ lyrics, it’s sufficient to say that Tegan and Sara tend toward the gloomy and introspective (the easy way to dubious legitimacy) and Aly & AJ toward witty relationship chronicles that are cathartic and anthemic.
Floridly produced by Death Cab for Cutie’s Christopher Walla, Tegan and Sara’s title track on The Con throws down a prevaricating gauntlet. A spastic acoustic guitar strum IDs this as the twins’ song, but there’s a new openness, a definite Hounds of Love–era Kate Bush airiness to the verse and a yummy pop chorus that the girls unfortunately feel compelled to ruin with an extraneous sprig of mood-demolishing angular guitar.
Similarly, the song “Nineteen” possesses a disarming prettiness that would be a tasty step forward were it not mucked up with rote New Order-y guitar noodles to nowhere, along with huge, gated reverb drums that suggest that Phil Collins is now part of the ironic indie quotation canon. Elsewhere on the release, we get the usual ’70s monophonic synths, unadorned Roland 808 beats and self-consciously fuzzy, sorta-’60s, sorta Frippy guitars, presumably because it just wouldn’t be indie without self-consciously fuzzy, sorta-’60s, sorta Frippy guitars.
Before we get to The Con’s true triumph, “Burn Your Life Down,” a word about the Tegan/Sara vocal technique: There’s a certain intensity to their land-speed-record melodies and bizarre harmonizing, but there’s no cadence and release in the technique. And there’s none of the satisfying separation and eventual merging of sibling tones that one gets in, say, the Everly Brothers. In a sense, it’s actually anti-musical, except on the mid-tempo “Burn Your Life Down,” which is just frickin’ great. That simple, lovely melody is supported by a no-bull four-piece; the harmonies circle in smart intervals around one another, allowing us to enjoy one sister’s slightly more raspy timbre and the other’s more flute-like qualities that on the super catchy chorus blend into something lovely. An entire CD of “Burn” – that would be something.
Insomniatic, Aly & AJ’s latest, is produced by Tim James and co-writer Antonina Armato, and as befits the genre that lives and dies by the single, is always enjoyable, but a few tracks flitter near filler. Indie kids are still in thrall to the notion and cult of authorship, which tends to result in teen pop’s dismissal by the hipster cognoscenti. But teen pop’s use of the finest producers/songwriters – aware of but not ruled by the same influences indie mimics – provide Radio Disney friendly acts with terrific material.
The first single is the brilliantly architectured “Potential Breakup Song,” whose title and conceit is postmodern. Stripped to component parts, it’s a superior Sparks song, complete with arch vocal delivery, and a diamond of Eurotrashy electronica with a minor-key melody that’s perversely cheery. Super-smart and crazy-catchy, it’s three-plus minutes of pop bliss. Tied for second-best are the tracks “Closure,” which uses those three “Hey Jude” outro chords to build a moving-on anthem, and “Like Whoa,” which opens as a bit of “Toxic”-like glitchy pop and explodes into speaker-bursting electronic-pop operetta delirium.
Aside from several ill-advised attempts to be “soulful,” Aly & AJ’s voices are unassumingly pretty and perfect for multitracking into shimmery pop choirs. Aly & AJ are less about their expression than your pleasure. Under no pressure to be cool, they’re free to be honest. The very talented but hipness-hamstrung Tegan and Sara would benefit greatly by following their email@example.com
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