Real Estate - Atlas

Indie-rock darlings keep ambling through their third album filled with the same dulcet charm and sleepyhead grooviness.

Additional Info

6.9

ALBUM: Atlas

ARTIST: Real Estate

2014

Rock

We, as a species, are creatures of habit, and at the same time both bored and comforted by routine. Stability is something we strive for in long-term life, yet day-to-day we look for flights from the sameness at every turn. Escapism is a main draw to art—from being dragged through Dante’s Hell to a space odyssey across the moon’s dark side—and the absurd, surreal, or forbidden has always held our attention longest. But what of art that reflects our actual realities? The search for the other in realism is sometimes difficult, especially with music. Try going through a typical day and counting how many new things happen to you. Then ask yourself how many everyday concepts warrant songs about them. Real Estate are a band that haven’t searched for new in a long time, as they found early on what it is they wished to pursue. Atlas is more of the same of Days and Real Estate. Luckily, Real Estate are able to get more mileage out of their doleful but pleasant yarns on the general ennui of person and place. The album answers the question of “Wouldn’t the urge to make things dissipate if you had already done it this way before?” with a resounding “Nah, man.” One surmises there’s some pleasure in the expression for the band to keep going this way, and that’s worth noting. This is not a joyless experience. In that way, Atlas is welcomed—it’s nice to hear more from these guys because they write relaxing music to which it’s easy to space out. The deeper content is there if you want to engage, but you can just enjoy the package’s prettiness if you want.

The critical success of and public’s connection to 2011’s Days relied on the cohesion of the basic elements from each of its members. Each guy in the band understood exactly what mode the band was exploring. Lead Gutiarist Matt Mondanile’s gentle plucking provides a perfect ripcord for the pensive, hushed vocals of Martin Courtney; drummer Etienne Pierre Duguay’s smiley, cruising beats allowed the rear-view mirror aura of slacker America to breathe. On Atlas, the formula hasn’t changed a bit, and it’s safe to say the band will remain in the crop of indie’s particularly beloved. Lead track “Had to Hear” immediately lets us know their car is still set on cruise control, that there are more sights to see again, for the first time. Courtney breathes, “I don’t need the horizon to tell me where the sky ends/ it’s a subtle landscape where I come from.” The band has never written a more apt line, as the overall feeling of the record (as well as Days) is one of long drives with little to look at. Unstimulated, the mind exalts certain bland content—think Terrence Malick or even John Cage. That’s not to suggest that Real Estate exists on those artists’ wavelengths, but the band does have a particular way of making the cracks in the gray asphalt or birds on the wire worthy of an extended look. Bands like Yo La Tengo weathered the same doldrums of the Mid Atlantic’s suck cities long before Real Estate, but Tengo hauled it out of town straddling genres and dodging easy classification. Beyond general locale, Real Estate share an undeniable connection to early Yo La Tengo, as well as blossoming Philadelphia band, The War on Drugs, in lackadaisical sonic sighing, but Real Estate’s droop offers more room to feel the prosaic suburbs. There’s not much getting in the way of the bleak plot on which Real Estate have built their sound.

In that way, Atlas reflects its title. At times, the crushing weight of a world-class bummer is felt pushing down on the narrator’s shoulders. That’s hyperbole, of course, but it nicely reflects the disenfranchised plane of the suburbs in general. Things suck here. The issue that arises from that is how long we can pay attention to the repeating sentiment before needing shocks from a defibrillator. The Sea and Cake pull off “boring” by inflecting nuanced jazz elements in their music, even Mondanile’s Ducktails project injects a funk feel or horns to steer clear of dullsville. Real Estate’s bait comes through Mondanile’s sleek leads, though I’m not quite sure the band is concerned with the audience tuning out. Days had the stuff to hold attention. The peaked mix of “Easy” or the energy of “It’s Real” and those delectable chorus “whoas” is undeniable. That’s a great example of the band pushing their middling subject matter through a unique and twinkling lens that allows the listener to connect. There’s really nothing equivalent to that on Atlas, though the album is full of solid songs taken on their own. Producer Tom Schick‘s mix is crisp, but rather flat and unvarying across the board, and in a single listening session, all of the songs are a bit too procedural. Tracks like “April’s Song” and “Horizon” are pleasant enough, but ultimately meander instead of punctuate the trip. With Atlas, sometimes it’d help to have a map to keep from feeling like we’ve been there before.

“I don’t need the horizon to tell me where the sky ends/ it’s a subtle landscape where I come from.”

1. Had to Hear
Matt Mondanile’s gentle guitar opens the album. As it should. His wandering, gazing semi-hooks are the hallmark of the best Real Estate songs. The song shows not much has changed for the band, but the melody is repetitive and strong, and it makes the sameness pretty okay to endure. Martin Courtney’s voice is pleasant, inoffensive, but breathy in a way that lends a subtle kick to the fluffy music around it. It’s right in place, but there’s a delicate urgency in lines like “I had to hear you/ just to feel near to you,” that gives the song what it needs in the way of impact. It’s a strong opening track, one that gives hope for the entire album to follow, but ultimately there are only a few other songs on Atlas that work as well at balancing malaise and majesty as well as this one.8.6
2. Past Lives
Alex Beeker’s high end is dialed up as his bass anchors this song with simple, plodding notes. It’s a riff a bassist of any skill level may stumble upon, but complexity is against the point here. Ruminative guitar builds as Courtney’s lyrics line directly up with the music’s mood. The only action of the song is the narrator lying down to survey a familiar place, a plaintive act that fits the Real Estate mold quite well. There’s loss felt upon the reflection of “home” changed after an absence, and though the song blurs into other Real Estate songs after it’s over, it’s a flash of pain that feels acute in the moment.6.9
3. Talking Backwards
A jangly, catchy pop tune that could have come from Mondanile’s Ducktails. The similarity is a little too on the nose when the guy is bouncing between both bands. Courtney is singing of disconnection (one of the album’s recurring themes): “We’re not getting any closer/ you’re too many miles away/ I might as well be talking backwards/ Am I making any sense to you?” There’s a nice organ accompaniment that makes the song feel filled out, as the guitar lines (chords and lead) are a bit thin.6.7
4. April’s Song
A pleasant instrumental, but ultimately ends up feeling like filler on a relatively short album. Arpeggio picking is punctuated by a lead doused in tremolo. The song feels like it could build into a full-blown Real Estate track, perhaps even a highlight, but the absence of vocals makes the music quickly feel stale, and kind of pointless. Without Courtney’s placid voice on which to pivot, the song’s simplicity is exposed. It feels unrealized, almost unfinished, as if the band just didn’t get around to laying down vocals before their studio time expired.5.5
5. The Bend
The song starts with easy acoustic guitar and tight, trebly drums. This may sound like a sleight, but it’s not: you could hear this song in an elevator or department store. It’d probably frolic in your head all day. Courtney sings, “I’m just trying to make some sense of it/ before I lose another year,” and it’s an instance where we see the band growing up a bit—electing to order something off the top shelf instead of the well. Mondanile’s guitar follows the vocal so closely that they nearly mend. It’s a nice effect, especially when, during the ending, the drums amplify and the guitar breaks away into a lovely dreamland. The sharp disconnection of that moment is a pang of life the album desperately needs. It’s the space we need to consider the grown up sentiment circling the summertime swirl. The song’s end is the best minute of music on the album.8.4
6. Crime
Courtney’s chord pattern is peculiar, and the song’s verses being in three is enough to keep the listener paying attention. There’s energy to this track that’s largely absent on the others, and, when compared to the band’s other relaxed compositions, it feels like they have to stay focused to keep in time. That additional attention shines through in the upbeat song. Mondanile’s bridge solo is quick, but inspired and its second half kicks up the gain for an added burst. It’s a lovely moment.7.9
7. Primitive
The chorus, “Don’t know where I want to be/ But I’m glad that you’re with me/ and all I know is it’d be easy to leave,” is one of the more memorable hooks on the album, but other than that, the music is too similar to other tracks to cement itself to this particular song. The long fade out while the band is noodling around gives the feel of someone walking away from the song—and really, you can’t blame them for splitting on this one.6.2
8. How Might I Live
Bassist Alex Bleeker takes lead vocal duties on this track, to warm, foot-tapping results. Sounding like David Berman lite, Bleeker’s shaky voice is in stark contrast to Courtney’s fluid croon. Some of his work with the Freaks is reflected in the song’s alt-country feel, which is just the twitch in the right direction Atlas needs, as the breezy sameness is just about deflating at this point. The band successfully edges close to I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One territory. My only qualm is that the track is too brief (it’s the album’s shortest) and we are barely able to sink our teeth into the gear change before it’s back to more of the same.8.2
9. Horizon
The song’s Neil Young chord strumming is initially intriguing, but the busy drums work against a Young aesthetic by mudding up the mix. So, too, is the guitar lead not in service of the staccato beat. Producer Tom Schick’s clear mix emphasizes the sounds clashing here, whereas in the past, Real Estate’s relatively lo-fi mixes may have added a layer to the business instead of highlighting just how separate each element sounds.6.9
10. Navigator
“The day is long/ but I’m already spent/ I have no idea/ where the time went.” It’s a nice closing sentiment, as Mondanile’s gentle lead shines the way back to suburbia. His bending notes are particularly nice, adding the right kind of lethargy to the album’s end. The song is sound, but rather forgettable even within the album’s context.6.0
Michael McDermit is an artist living in Oregon. He is a contributing member of the My Idea of Fun artist collective and currently teaches writing and literature at the University of Oregon.



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