Review: Real Estate – Atlas

Real Estate Atlas
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opinion by DREW MALMUTH

Worries about music that “all sounds the same” often remind me of the constant suggestions that our society is plunging head first into a suburbanized, standardized, technology-ridden dystopia devoid of all individuality and intimacy.  These trends are worth thinking about – and, in many cases, rejecting until our last breath –  but what should be avoided is the assumption that changes in the technologies, houses, or media around us translate into direct, coherent social effects.  It is tempting to convince ourselves otherwise but agency can never be ignored.  Rock music, and in this case New Jersey’s Real Estate, is an enduring and consistently surprising case in point.  There are general rules about the tools involved and what the end product should sound like.  There are expectations, industry limitations, historical trends, and established sonic cues.  Yet a good rock album acknowledges these conditions, shifts them in particular ways, and, against all odds, then proceeds to build something distinctly human.  With each album Real Estate has sharpened this process, making Atlas both immediately recognizable and their most interesting album to date.

After a fantastic self-titled debut, Days further established the then three-piece’s talent for building tight, near-perfect tunes out of delicately intertwined guitar melodies, swaying vocals, and nimble bass lines.  With the addition of two permanent members (Jackson Pollis on drums and Matt Kallman on keyboard) and production from Tom Schick (Ryan Adams, Low), Atlas takes on a richer, more lively sound quality.  The fact that the songs were rigorously worked out before hand and recorded mostly live to tape in 10 days comes through immediately.  The members, clearly comfortable with one another’s styles, seem less bothered by machine-like execution and more in tune with the band’s dynamic.  That Pollis and Kallman are well-versed in their instruments helps this along, as the pitch-perfect keys and more intricate drum patterns make Atlas sound like it was made by a band rather than a collection of overdubs.  These sonic tweaks are welcome, but they are merely the fine grain of an album that works in broad, hypnotic strokes – song by song capturing feelings of separation, exploration, and uncertainty.

Real Estate fully embraces a posture that has been fundamental for indie rock but has since gone out of vogue – that of a disenchanted but thoughtful ex-suburbanite that does not reject his or her roots but nevertheless wonders what the hell the American suburb has done to all of us.  Like musical, less-disturbing versions of a Dave Eggers book, Real Estate picks up on the sounds and styles of The Shins or Yo La Tengo.  Martin Courtney maintains that Real Estate’s sound is stuck in the 70s and has little to do with the listening habits of “kids these days,” who are “all goth – or into house music.”  Yet beyond the more obvious 70s soft rock inspirations, Atlas shares tendencies with the post-pop classics of The Clientele or Luna.  Matt Mondanile’s pulsating guitar melodies on “Past Lives” and “Navigator,” the Dean Wareham-indebted “How I Might Live,” Matt Kallman’s dreamy keys on “Primitive” – all of these create a pensive and philosophical atmosphere that isn’t shrouded in pretension.  And not unlike Alasdair MacLean or Dean Wareham,  Martin Courtney is able to complement this distinct sound with unadorned stories that are less detached and breezy than their delivery suggests.

Not extremely subtle, but the album’s title is nevertheless a useful metaphor for the themes that the band wants to explore.  An atlas, and maps in general, can create a feeling of exploration while at the same time amplifying the sense of distance between us and the place we want to be.  “Had to Hear” plays with these ideas of time and space from the outset, with Courtney out “on his own,” missing the person who’s voice he wants to hear, insisting that he “doesn’t need the horizon to tell [him] where the sky ends.”  “Talking Backwards” reinforces the image of a couple trying to negotiate communication while physically apart and “The Bend” centers on a lack of control, as the narrator is “behind the wheel but it won’t steer.”  This is darker and more immediate territory for the band, yet part of Atlas’ charm is its ability to imbue scenes of detachment with sweet and heartfelt sentiments.  For a moment, on “Past Lives,” Courtney wades into the comfort and nostalgia of suburbia but, for most of Atlas, his lyrics delve into the process of finding a life that is less sheltered but more rewarding.  On “Primitive” he seems to find joy in his relationship’s uncertainty.  It allows him to fantasize: “In my mind I can see the street where you and I will live/ you still can’t see the stars at night, but we’re not primitive.”  Similarly, the album’s closer, “Navigator,” finds the narrator lazily staring at the clock before rushing out of the house to somewhere he won’t describe.  He says, “I’ll meet you where the pavement ends.”  The songs on Atlas are continually looking for where the pavement ends and never saying exactly what’s to be found.

In one of the most intriguing breaks from Days, Atlas dabbles in chunky alt-country melodies that fit nicely within the band’s slow but steady expansion into various American genres.  “Primitive” is among the best songs the band has written, relying on a unique blend of sturdy, country-rock melodies and the delicate guitar arrangements that are Real Estate’s stock-in-trade.  If Jeff Tweedy had been a millennial he might have written music like this.  In a similar way, “Horizon”’s bouncy arrangement takes the album into the territory of Beachwood Sparks or Buffalo Tom, before the chorus pulls the song resolutely back into the indie rock realm.  These expansions in Real Estate’s sound, while not exactly groundbreaking, are small hints at what could be a promising direction for the band.  Dainty, pleasant guitar licks melded into foot-stomping Americana?  No one can say no to that.

One might say that revelling in the small but digestible changes in Real Estate’s sound is indicative more of how unadventurous and predictable they are than of their quality as a rock band.  But that argument misses the point.  There is course room for bands that completely deconstruct what rock music is supposed to sound like; but, saying to hell with critical theory for the moment, it’s also nice to be reminded of the genre’s simple pleasures.  The question shouldn’t always be whether a band continually reinvents itself or whether they are only defined by their subversion of expectations.  Those approaches are welcome, but sometimes the right question is whether or not a band understands what it is and what it is trying to do.  And whether or not, within that understanding, the band can create a collection of music that is unique in its expression and in its substance, if not in its form.  By most measures, Atlas achieves this in nearly every regard, and there is no reason to expect, or to hope, that Real Estate won’t do the exact same thing the next time around.  B+

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