Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021

Aly & AJ – Pretty Places

Feeling cooped up…


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Juana Giaimo: “Pretty Places” reminds me of those moments that feel suspended from everyday life and all its stress, and you can simply enjoy the time passing by. When it became hard to physically go to those pretty places, we suddenly were forced to find them near us. In my case, my own room became a pretty place at the beginning of quarantine when I changed my bedroom layout and put my bed in front of the window to watch the sky turn from light to dark while listening to an album at dawn. Maybe it’s the warm acoustic guitar in the background or their soft whispering vocals, but Aly & AJ did their most comforting song to date. It’s the kind of song that when they sing “we,” I feel easily included, as if they were taking me by the hand with them.
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Jackie Powell: I was texting back and forth with a friend from high school and I asked her point-blank how she’s been dealing with the pandemic wall. Her response was simple: taking drives. Aly & AJ confirm the same on “Pretty Places,” the third single from their upcoming album, the first full-length project since 2007’s Insomniatic when they were still signed to Hollywood records. While Aly Michalka proclaimed in an interview with Bustle that this cut wasn’t written for radio, that doesn’t mean that they weren’t writing alongside what has worked lately in popular music. While I don’t know if streaming algorithms were a factor in the sound, it’s clear that on “Pretty Places” that they were going for something. Not a TikTok hit, but rather a cut that could critically define the adult chapter of their career. It only helps that the sonic influences of Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac have doused pop music in the past couple of years. It’s not a fluke that “Pretty Places” follows Post Malone’s “Circles,” The Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears,” and Miley Cyrus’ Plastic Hearts era. Exchanging ’80s synths for oodles of rhythm guitar progressions, Aly & AJ prove that their harmonies and songwriting can survive a change in direction. The track is also over five minutes long, which amid radio friendliness or not, had me skeptical. Are Aly & AJ heading into progressive rock? (Thank god they aren’t!) On “Pretty Places,” however, they don’t waste a second or a note. Compared to their other single “Listen!!!,” escapism takes a bit longer on “Pretty Places,” a track with a slower tempo. But, it doesn’t feel tired. It feels real and with the context of a pandemic behind it, the concept of “all the pretty places/pull us away from where the pain is” is a shared experience. Just take a drive and go anywhere.
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Alex Clifton: A song that makes me feel hopeful for the summer ahead, like maybe I’ll actually be able to see some of these pretty places in the near future.
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Austin Nguyen: The destinationless infinites and open-hand horizons of a senior trip across the States (or, you know, a weekend to Las Vegas): Guitar strums crumble in reverb like wind-swept desert dust, and the drum pattern has the unobtrusive ease of fingers tapping the dashboard. It’s a chorus too long (and “come with me” would’ve been the perfect line to drive off into the sunset with), but the journey back can be tinged with languor like that.
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Hazel Southwell: This sounds so basic at the beginning, so blunt and insipid that I was really antsy about having to review it. I don’t know why I thought they’d have forgotten how to yank your heart out by the strings and dangle it carelessly out the car window, speeding off into the sunset. This starts gentle, mild, but builds to a minor key declaration of joyful loneliness; the only reason the final chorus isn’t a holler-a-long is because your chest is too tight by then.
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Joshua Lu: I adored Aly & AJ’s litany of ’80s pastiches, but their shift towards a more light rock sound, still preserving their synthpop core, has been just as welcome. Part of it feels like a callback — “Rush” and its absolutely divine updated version come to mind — yet it’s still a fresh and natural evolution. “Pretty Places” adapts this sound and splatters it across a five-minute downtempo track, letting you indulge in the swirling sonics of this pastel paean to love and the open air and a glittering future. Their vocals are like wisps of clouds drifting across the glittering miasmic sky of that smooth instrumental, suddenly lit up by those guitar strums that strike like lightning. The song swells to a powerful peace, capable of pulling you in for a hug and pushing you out the door. 
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Rachel Saywitz: Aly & AJ continue to exist in the musical space between wistful memories and fantastical dreams, which is to say that “Pretty Places” doesn’t quite move beyond the Cali-pop aesthetic that the duo’s become known for in recent years. Not that the rigidity of their musical output matters too much — they still sound like the fresh air that comes with an early spring morning, their voices soft and understated over beaming synths. And while “Pretty Places” immediately comes off as a little forgettable, the five-minute runtime passes smoothly through open ears, a testament to the comfort the two always seem to bake into their music. 
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Alfred Soto: I hear “Pretty Places” as a strummed version of the best shoegaze: the aural violence and rhythmic whorls refashioned as 4AD-indebted gamine exqusiteness. 
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Will Adams: I can hear what they’re going for — the freeway cruising lite-country of “Standing Still”; the escapism of “Run Away With Me”; overall yearning — but they never quite reach a destination, opting for journey instead. Aly & AJ take advantage of some opportunities to propel the song forward (a chorus key change) but not all: the bridge desperately calls for a crescendo that never arrives. A scenic but unvaried drive is pretty to look at, but eventually it loses its luster.
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Katherine St Asaph: Starts frail and never gets far past it. “Pretty Places” either needs an arrangement that isn’t tethered to rock and earth — something like “Motorway” — or needs a stronger voice, one that can match the bite of the guitar, pull out the hints of twang in the chorus, and really dig into “I’ll go anywhere.” It doesn’t even need to be that much stronger; Haim could pull it off. The song also needs a different adjective than “pretty,” though maybe that one’s a little too apt.
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Samson Savill de Jong: This song would be good if it stopped when it finished, instead it goes on for almost two more minutes.
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Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Attains the gravity-resistant beauty of ’70s soft rock in 30 seconds, but doesn’t do much with the additional five minutes it sticks around for. It’s almost anti-hook– there’s no one portion of “Pretty Places” that sticks out, but the overall picture is pleasant enough that you only realize it once the ride is over.
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Vikram Joseph: Have my restless feet been stuck in lockdown on this cold island for long enough for a soft-rock song about generic escapism to tug on my passport-strings? It would seem so, dear reader. “Pretty Places” stretches out over five minutes, but pleasantly so, like in high summer when the daylight hours seem infinite. It makes less-interesting choices than Ashley Monroe’s recent, not-dissimilar road-trip paean “Drive,” especially on the slightly leaden percussion; ultimately, though, there’s a widescreen, elegiac pull to it that’s hard to resist, best represented by the unhurried unfurling of ribbons of guitar that follow the middle-eight.
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Wayne Weizhen Zhang: “Pretty Places” fakes you out with its cutesy title, suggesting you’re about to hear a ballad about a special place like a secret garden or pastoral landscape. But Aly & AJ never describe any actual places; rather, the song’s focus is entirely about documenting the feeling of placelessness, of constantly leaving somewhere behind: “All the pretty places/Pull us away from where the pain is/These open skies/Leaving the past behind.” It’s a feeling that I know all too well. In the past three years, due to work, family and the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve lived in eight different cities on three different continents. And while I don’t regret my travels, because of the incredible experiences I’ve had and people I’ve encountered, in many ways, always chasing the next “pretty place” has left me feeling lonely and untethered. It’s an experience I know I share with many queer friends, and why so many ex-pat communities (regardless of my own self-selection bias) read so gay. Feeling unsafe to be our authentic selves as home, we romanticize anywhere else; feeling rejection and abandonment we’d prefer not to confront, we instinctively run away; feeling afraid of true vulnerability, we’d rather feel lost. Aly & AJ distill the exhaustion and trauma of constant self-displacement so well, they even capture how it bleeds into the way that I’ve learned to form relationships. When they sing, “I’ll go anywhere/All I need is you/I’ll go anywhere/All we got is us now,” it makes me think of how my platonic and romantic queer relationships often feel like the only things keeping my feet on the ground. But despite this, their delivery isn’t actually uplifting: instead, it’s haunting and desperate, a reminder that while connection is beautiful, over-relying and romantically obsessing over others is inherently toxic. We shouldn’t need other people to represent our entire sense of safety and security. At this point, maybe I’m just embarrassing myself by overanalyzing all the queer dimensions of a song that isn’t even explicitly queer — but the way that “Pretty Places” was able to peer into my soul, and see how cosmically lost I often feel, was both amazing and terrifying. My only hope is that given this power to reflect, one day, I’ll be able to find a place — pretty, if imperfect — where myself and others can feel like we finally belong.
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Reader average: [8] (1 vote)

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