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Album Review: The Aces drop their most honest music yet with ‘Under My Influence’

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The United States may still be in the midst of a mass lockdown, but The Aces haven’t let quarantine hinder their creativity. Two years after the release of their glittering indie pop debut When My Heart Felt Volcanic, The Aces return with their most candid work to date. Under My Influence explores personal discovery through heartbreak, setting some of the band’s intimate experiences in love, sexuality, and religion on display. Their debut album may have touched on the topic of love and religion with tracks like “Lovin’ Is Bible”, but their sophomore release sees the four-piece embracing the intersection of LGBT identity and their upbringing in the small, religious community of Provo, Utah. Combining the efforts of sisters Cristal and Alisa Ramirez, lead guitarist Katie Henderson, and bassist McKenna Petty, Under My Influence delivers strong sonic development in combination with emotional depth.

The Aces’ debut garnered them instant fame, from a performance on Late Night with Seth Meyers to spots on several critics’ end-of-the-year lists in 2018. This year’s release packs just as much shiny production, cool instrumentation, and catchy vocals as its predecessor, but Under My Influence is a testament to the band’s daring songwriting growth. 

In May of this year, Cristal posted a video to the band’s official Tik Tok answering the question of whether she’d ever had a pregnancy scare. Through laughter, she replied, “No, I’m gay as hell!” Evidently, the video answered a long-held suspicion for fans, with comments including “IT’S CONFIRMEDDD” and “a win for the girls”. Alisa has been open on social media about her relationship with her long-time girlfriend, but this video marked the first mention of Cristal’s queer identity online. Little did fans know, only a month later, Under My Influence would deliver an undeniable embrace of queer sexuality.

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When My Heart Felt Volcanic shared vignettes of romance, but remained ambiguous in its use of gender-neutral pronouns. “We were told not to sing about girls,” The Aces told BBC. This time around, the quartet ignored those who told them “it [wouldn’t] sell” and took a chance on authenticity. “Oh, Kelly / What you doing?” Cristal sings over a slick, pop-infused reggae beat. “Please stop playing with my heart / before you tear it right apart.” The dance hit “Can You Do” is an even more overt assertion of sexual desire: “I’m the king girl, you’re the fool / But don’t mind a switch, babe / Try things out your way”. 

Discovering your identity in the LGBT community and finding space to explore individuality is no easy feat—as Katie, Cristal, and Alisa can attest to as queer women. “The biggest thing I’d go back and tell that young girl,” Cristal shared with American Songwriter, “is that all these things just take time. Keep looking forward and find your community.” For The Aces, that community existed at The Sun Trapp, Salt Lake City’s primary gay bar. “801”, an allude to the area code of their hometown, is adapted from an early poem Alisa wrote about her first visit to the venue. An alluring chord progression and laid-back drum beat set the groundwork for the track’s protruding lyrics, “Leave your church shoes and your Sunday clothes / but bring your guilt and we ‘gone let it go.” Their newfound home in Los Angeles may offer a more extensive queer community than the religious epicenter of Provo, but the City of Angels comes with its own set of pitfalls. 

Much of the emotional exploration on Under My Influence is communicated in terms of geography. For a young band thrust into the demands of touring, it makes sense that they would analyze their emotions with a keen awareness of location. “Lost Angeles” details the loneliness that accompanies moving to a new city, especially one as widespread as LA. Even the album’s feel-good debut single “Daydream” is an ode to long distance relationships, sung over cheery guitar riffs and booming bass. The anthem has adopted a new meaning in quarantine, assuring fans that The Aces will be making a return to live music as soon as is safely possible. “But you know, but you know, but you know / I’m coming back to you” 

While the album’s exploration of queer love is an important shift for the band in their songwriting, Under My Influence is a work anyone with a heart could empathize with. Following a rough break up, Cristal penned a series of tracks expressing nearly every emotion associated with heartbreak. Where The Aces distinct themselves is in their uncanny ability to layer sorrowful lyrics atop such catchy instrumentation, listeners can’t help but bust a move while holding back tears—from the winding vocal and guitar melodies on “I Can Break Your Heart Too” to the driving dance beat forging a lyrical illustration of toxic love on “Cruel”.

“Thought of You” emerges as the album’s token love song amidst a collection predominantly dedicated to heartbreak. Under My Influence navigates the devastating losses of unrequited affection and toxic relationships, until finally landing on the other side of personal growth with an understanding of what love should feel like. What are the qualities of a perfect partner? “Gotta be kind and patient and loyal / Gotta heal me when I’m feeling toiled” Cristal sings over a romantic waltz beat, shimmering strings, and airy vocal harmonies. The record is rounded out by the playful funk hit “Zillionaire”. The album closer shows off the band’s sonic growth, but most importantly, sets their priorities straight. The four-piece isn’t preoccupied with the futile endeavours of wealth and fame; for The Aces, friendship and love truly do prove to be the currency of a rich life.

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