ARTIST: Real Estate
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.”