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More kingdoms they can conquer

Aly & AJ are trying to extend their appeal beyond the Disney Channel crowd.

June 23, 2007|Mikael Wood | Special to The Times

Camped out with their musical director Zoux inside a Burbank rehearsal studio earlier this week, 18-year-old Alyson Michalka and her 16-year-old sister, Amanda -- known to throngs of Radio Disney listeners as Aly & AJ -- are deep in discussion over the precise placement of a guttural "hunh" sound in "Bullseye," a tune from their new album, "Insomniatic."

Aly thinks there should be more space between the "hunh" and the "Hit it!" that follows. AJ favors a tighter transition. Zoux, a man who's clearly grown accustomed to the vicissitudes of teenage girlhood, allows the sisters to work out the issue themselves. Once they do, it's on to the next problem: What's the best way to replicate onstage a flutter of reverse-run vocals in "Potential Breakup Song," the new CD's breezy lead single?

That attention to non-lip-gloss-related detail isn't necessarily what you'd expect from Aly & AJ's tween-pop peer group, a high-ponytailed pack that also includes fellow Radio Disney heavyweights the Cheetah Girls and Miley Cyrus (a.k.a. Hannah Montana).

But Aly & AJ aren't terribly interested in upholding expectations: Though they've become Mouse House staples thanks to a string of Disney Channel fare -- including the movie "Cow Belles" and the series "Phil of the Future" -- the sisters, and their handlers, are aiming for success beyond the confines of Mickey's Magic Kingdom.

In fact, they've already begun to taste it: Thanks largely to Top 40 radio's embrace of "Rush," the high-spirited single that exhorted listeners to "be every color that you are," Aly & AJ's 2005 debut album "Into the Rush" has sold nearly 800,000 copies -- solid numbers in this moment of widespread record-industry crisis.

"The unique thing about Aly & AJ," says their manager, Gerry Cagle, "is that they're in a position where even though they're partnered with Disney, they're not owned by Disney. So we get to use the tremendous machinery Disney's developed but we can have them grow up too, whereas most Disney acts are forced to stay within the Disney demographic."

That growth is on full display throughout "Insomniatic" (due July 10), which finds the sisters shading the debut album's just-be-yourself positivity with frankly phrased accounts of romantic turmoil. ("We got along until you did that," they sneer in "Potential Breakup Song." "Now all I want is just my stuff back.") The music is an eclectic, adventurous blend of folky guitars, pumped-up dance beats and tasty synthesizer noises that AJ rightly calls "ear candy."

"Bullseye" has an explosive chorus that comes as close to Blur's "Song 2" as any tween-pop tune ever has. "Closure" layers dreamy harmony vocals over a booming arena-emo beat. "Like It or Leave It" nails the same screw-tight robo-garage vibe as Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone," the gold standard for this kind of stuff.

"What's great about working with people that age is that they're fearless," says Tim James, who produced "Insomniatic" with his partner, Antonina Armato. "They were tackling a lot of musical things on this record that they hadn't tried before."

Says Jon Lind, senior vice president of A&R at Hollywood Records: "They're definitely taking up ideas and concepts that are more introspective and have more depth than what the basic perception of a Radio Disney act is. We signed them clearly and directly because of their musical talents, which was not the case with some of the [Disney-affiliated] artists I've worked with recently."

Over dinner at the sprawling Calabasas home they share with their parents, the sisters talk excitedly -- and with no shortage of industry jargon -- about their desire to retain their Radio Disney roots while expanding into the wider world of mainstream pop.

"I think you have to work twice as hard in the mainstream," Aly says. "There are more players that you're up against, so you have to tour more and keep your MySpace updated and not wait too long to put new records out."

It's unlikely that Aly & AJ could work any harder. They recently completed a feature-film version of MTV's "My Super Sweet 16" reality series, in which the sisters play archrivals. On July 11 in Phoenix, they'll begin an American tour that will keep them on the road through the end of August. (The show hits Irvine's Verizon Wireless Amphitheater on July 12.)

Still, the transition into Top 40 isn't simply about effort, says radio consultant Jeff Pollack, chief executive of the Pollack Media Group. "Having a buzz from a Disney project is not enough to get you taken seriously. It's about whether or not the music experience can match what's being offered on Top 40."

With its personal stories and catchy grooves, "Insomniatic" seems up to the job. Yet L.A.'s Top 40 powerhouse, KIIS-FM (102.7), has not added "Potential Breakup Song" to its highly influential playlist.

"It would be an easy opportunity for us to become a conscious alternative to the racier elements in the rock 'n' roll crowd right now," says Cagle. "But Aly & AJ are a brand built on the fact that what you see is what you get. They're wholesome, but it's just who they are."

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Aly & AJ

Where: Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, 8808 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine

When: 7 p.m. July 12

Price: $35.50 to $45.50

Contact: (949) 855-8096

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