Sunday, October 15, 2006

Album Review: Aly & AJ - Acoustic Hearts of Winter

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(terrible album cover)

Acoustic Hearts of Winter is the latest album by Aly & AJ, a Christmas album released just earlier this month. The album features two original songs, "Greatest Time of Year" and "Not This Year", as well as several acoustic covers of classic Christmas carols.

"Greatest Time of Year" is what kicks the album off, and it's really a great song. Not acoustic, as the title of the album might imply, but packed with electric guitar, and a great high-energy chorus. The Martin/Luke sound might be getting slightly played out, but the Michalkas certainly do it better than most, and so I'm not begrudging them of anything. What a great melody, and I love the usage of the bells in the chorus. And despite the familiarity of the structure and general sound of the song, it sounds like a pretty original melody to me.

Lyrically it's a pretty standard secular Christmas "rah rah" song about spending Christmas with friends, being nice to each other, decorating the tree, etc.; basically, a random Christmas lyric generator could have come up with it. Given the rest of their interesting lyrics on Into the Rush and on this album's other original (more on that later) this was slightly disappointing, but it's hard not to love this song anyways, just from a musical standpoint. Strong contender for one of my top 25 singles of the year, but I think I still like "Chemicals React" more. A really fun song, and one of the best Christmas pop songs of all time (with "All I Want for Christmas Is You", "I Wanna Kiss You So", "Christmas in Hollis", et al).

The album then segues into a number of covers of Christmas carols. The songs they have chosen are, in order,

2. "Joy to the World"
3. "We Three Kings"
4. "The First Noel"
5. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"
6. "Silent Night"
7. "I'll Be Home for Christmas"
8. "Let It Snow"
9. "Deck the Halls"
10. "Little Drummer Boy"

Please note first, 6 religious Christmas tunes, balanced out by only three of the many secular Christmas carols. Also notice that all three secular carols are sequenced consecutively. This is a pretty uninspired selection of carols, as it leaves off most of my favorite ones in favor of songs that have been done a million times. I wish they had dug down and done some of the other Christmas carols (say "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" or "I Saw Three Ships") that haven't been covered as much and aren't instantly familiar to all listeners. It also lacks "Away in a Manger" which is my favorite of the vastly overdone/pretty carols that are always put on these types of CDs.

However, I guess when you get down to it, my problem isn't that they've selected such familiar carols, but that they've chosen to do them in such familiar ways. Most of the songs are just backed with a simple acoustic guitar and piano backdrop, though some also feature some fairly spare string accompaniments or some bells as well. For the most part though it's just the girls singing over a fairly standard guitar part. Christmas carols obviously lend themselves over to the "pretty" more than the "explosive, catchy", but the girls have shown they can do pretty! (see for example "Protecting Me" or "No One"). I guess I was hoping for an album of spare musical lines, and lots of pretty harmonizing from the girls, and I was a bit disappointed. They've elected to just do the songs straight through, and without even that much harmony. It's mostly just the two of them singing their parts sequentially. Aly and AJ are pretty good singers, but there's absolutely nothing to recommend these versions over the many other versions of these songs that have been done. Exceptions are "Silent Night" which features very little guitar and mostly a string accompaniment, with the girls singing over it. Very pretty, but then again there have been hundreds of very pretty versions of this same song. Also "Deck the Halls" features a nicely bouncy beat and "Little Drummer Boy" is a much more rockin' electric version than the rest of the songs on the CD, but since I hate those songs I can barely stand to listen to the versions.

Then, out of absolutely nowhere comes "Not This Year". I love this song, and I love the lyrics of this song, and I wanted to lay out exactly why, so that's what I'll do right now:

"This Christmas card is contrived / A mannequin looks more alive / Haven't meant a word I've written here / The page is full not one thing sincere"

Taking down the canned sentiments of Christmas cards. I've heard people mention this before, but I don't know of any songs that do in particular, and I like the way they do it here.

"I can't, I can't, I can't, I can't take it / This is the time to smile, I can't fake it / Please allow me the chance now / To break it down"

Having to put on a false front of happiness and cheer due to the fact that it's Christmas, when you're not feeling any happiness inside. I think anybody's whose ever had something sad happen to them around Christmas can relate to this.

"It's not snow, It's rain coming down/ And the lights are cool, But they burn out / And I can't pull off the cheer / Not this year / Not this year / Not this year"

She's sad, she knows the Christmas season is happy and cheerful ("The lights are cool"), but soon enough the season is going to end, and she's back to the everyday pain in her life ("But they burn out"). A cycle she's just not quite up for this time around. She's not willing to just put her personal pain on layaway just because it's Christmas season, when that same pain will just be in the back of her mind, growing and gnawing away at her anyways.

"When I look into the mirror / No happiness is present here / Not supposed to whine, Not supposed to cry / Try to hold it in, but not this time"

More of the same imagery, the pain of pretending to be happy while really being sad.

(chorus again)
"Don't know, don't know / If you can hear me / I will, I will / Speak louder for you / No more whispering / Are you listening / I am pleading / I am pleading"

Whoa. Literally begging and pleading to just be let alone to live her life as always. I'm not really sure what to make of these lines, but they certainly hit to the same ideas as above. Especially when you listen to the plaintive, wailing tone they sing it in, it's kind of harrowing actually.

(Chorus 2x).

I really love this song, and I love the way it hits to a fundamental part of Christmas that I don't think any other song I can think of has. Not stopping loving Christmas as you become older and more mature, and not hating how the season has been killed or choked by canned sentiments (and I'm not sure how their Evangelical Christianity is relevant to this song at all), but how the forced happy emotions of Christmas can cause true sadness to spiral even further down. Most depressing Christmas song ever. But yet, I think most people can relate to it. Depression is supposedly particularly high during the Christmas season, and the girls/their cowriters have really hit to the reasons why here. Additionally, it is a perfect counterpoint to "Greatest Time of Year", the album's lead track and lead single. Featuring a great lyric, good vocals by the girls, and a great melody, this song, if it is released as a single, will be one of my top 10, if not top 5 of the year.

OFFICIAL OPINION OF THE TCR: It's hard to say what I think about this album. Two excellent originals surrounding a bunch of mediocre cover songs. Much as I love "Greatest Time of Year" and "Not This Year", I'd say to save your money and buy one of those Very Special Christmas albums from the bargain bins, for a better value. Into the Rush was, I think, underrated, but Aly & AJ are in serious danger of becoming a chronic "singles band". THUMBS DOWN.

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Anonymous Lauren said...

I think their goal was to show off their pretty voices and guitar skills. You get exactly what you pay for with Acoustic Hearts of Winter. These songs weren't meant to released as singles; it's just a holdover under their next album is released. Fans of Aly and AJ will just like to hear their voices singing Christmas tunes, so it's worth the money if you enjoy their sound.

5:58 AM  
Blogger Greg said...


Thanks for the comment. I actually agree with what you wrote here. Which is why I tried to avoid language like saying it's "useless" or what not. This is clearly a treat for the fans, while not really containing anything else. And I AM an Aly & AJ fan, I just think I'm held back from enjoying these covers too much because I hate the carols they've chosen to cover and they've done them in such blah ways. I wanted a lot more harmony! While they are GOOD singers and I like their sound, they are not good enough to overcome that. Not for me. So I am writing this from my perspective.

9:08 AM  

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