The tarted-up multi-hyphened teens just keep coming at Disney-owned Hollywood Records, with two new releases from actresses-songwriters-wannabe pop stars whose blond tousles, lined eyes and glossed pouts beckon from the album covers -- though to whom they're beckoning, exactly, isn't nearly as clear as their airbrushed skin.
This time out, the starlets range from 14 to nearly 18, and what a difference a few years makes: While dewy first-timers Aly & A.J. sing of missing children, how much they love their family and having to tell a boy to, please, slow down, been-around-the-block Hilary Duff wants to let you know she needs to be a party girl and, hey, it's all your fault.
At least that's the message on the former Lizzie Maguire's latest single, "Wake Up," one of only three new tracks on her sorta-new third album, "Most Wanted." "There's people talking, they talk about me / they know my name, they think they know everything / but they don't know anything about me," Duff whines before declaring her life "okay" as long as she can find a happenin' happening "in London, Paris, maybe Tokyo" every Saturday night to forget her troubles. Duff's thin, often straining voice is as irritating as the subject, but chances are no one will really care: The beat-driven "Wake Up" is catchy as hell, prime bubblegum for giggling teenage girls to sing along with before heading to the mall.
In the age of iTunes, it would normally be questionable whether Duff's fans would buy the 13-track "Most Wanted" just for the fresh stuff, which includes remixes of hits "Come Clean," "Girl Can Rock," "Why Not" and "Rock This World" (though the difference in the last is barely noticeable). But the studio isn't dumb: The new "Beat of My Heart," an up-tempo dance tune, and "Break My Heart," a piece of pop-rock that Duff's boyfriend, Joel Madden of Good Charlotte, would be proud of, are available online only with the purchase of the entire album.
Easier to love is "Into the Rush," the 14-song first effort from Alyson Michalka, 16, star of the Disney Channel's "Phil of the Future," and her 14-year-old sister, Amanda Joy, a regular guest on CBS's "The Guardian" before it was canceled. Unlike Duff, Aly & A.J. play guitar and share writing credits on their slickly produced pop songs. And they seem to know that their retreads are disposable: Though covers of the Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe in Magic" and Katrina and the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine" -- first released on the "Herbie: Fully Loaded" soundtrack -- are competent, they're mere footnotes to the rest of the album. The siblings' sweet voices are a touch fuller than most teen queens and serve their sunny, radio-friendly release well. As to be expected, crushes are a big subject, with the girls singing about the ruinous effect of playing hard-to-get on the infectious "Collapsed" and defending puppy love on the rock-tinged "Something More."
Not that Aly & A.J. don't get serious: On "No One," a ballad with a soaring chorus, the duo takes on self-acceptance, and on the moodier, mid-tempo "I Am One of Them" -- whose lyrics on the CD jacket are preceded by the Internet address of a missing children's Web site -- promises to "stay on alert / for all the kids out there who are gettin' hurt."
Maybe not as fun as partying around the world, but refreshing proof that carefully packaged crossovers can offer more than just a pretty face.
Hilary Duff will perform at First Mariner Arena in Baltimore on Aug. 27.