The new Real Estate record is a very welcome break from whatever it is that is happening (or not happening) in the current indie scene. That is, it is music, with elegant melodies, that is pleasant to listen to. Just plain good music. So it’s kind of refreshing to see that there are still bands out there who care about making music, and care about their craft. There are no gimmicks, no hypey PR stories. The music just feels honest in what it’s doing. Listening to it, you don’t feel like it’s trying to pass for something else, or like it’s trying to sell you something. It’s not trying. It just is.
Atlas was recorded live, after the band had composed the songs together and rehearsed them together. And indeed the record sounds great when played live, which is how the band chose to debut the songs before the album’s release. Atlas was recorded at Wilco’s Loft studio in Chicago, among other places, with producer Tom Schick (White Denim, Mavis Staples, Low). The album cover features a detail from a famous mural by artist Stefan Knapp that once hung on the side of an Alexander’s department store, close to the band’s home town of Ridgewood, New Jersey. Semantically, “Atlas” here is intended to mean the collection of maps, rather than the Titan who held the celestial sphere on his shoulders. And this reflects the fact that the lyrics on this record are concerned more with the present and future, trying to figure out possible paths and directions, rather than nostalgically gazing over the past in the suburbs, which was perhaps a common theme in Real Estate’s previous two records (although there’s some of that here too).
The sound of Real Estate has often been labeled as summery, which I’ve never quite understood. Obviously they play jangly, surfy guitar music, but I’ve always felt there is a melancholy to their music that never lets it be carefree enough to immediately associate with summer, the way you might do with the sound of The Free Design. Similarly, this new record does not quite evoke the spirit of summer, and in the lyrics there is possibly more concern and confusion expressed than in Real Estate’s previous output.
‘Talking Backwards,’ the first 7″ single from this album, is one of the poppiest-sounding compositions of the band to date, even though it is rather melancholic with its lyrics about the frustrations of problematic communication. ‘The Bend’ is a more contemplative track with a low-key 60s innocence in its simple vocal lines and guitar melodies. The instrumental ‘April’s Song’ is more in the vein of Matt Mondanile’s Ducktails side project, with a dreamy buoyancy thanks to Mondanile’s surfy guitar lines and to details like Martin Courtney’s whammy-bar use for his guitar parts. ‘Primitive’ invokes a French New Wave cinema kind of innocence, with a hazy melody somewhat reminiscent of early Still Corners, while ‘How Might I Live,’ sung by bassist Alex Bleeker, is, interestingly, a moving country-tinged composition.
Atals sounds unmistakably like Real Estate. The band’s signature sound jangles but not in a drunkenly sloppy or furious punk way. There’s no macho self-aggrandization in their sound. But there’s no giddy urgency, no heart-breaking emotion, no feverish poetry or grand catharsis either. Rather, the music bops in a 50s California surf-rock, organic, grounded, human way. It has charm, and warmth, and a mellow sadness.
The band themselves consciously chose this sound and have stuck to it through the years (even as guitar bands are getting fewer and fewer), because as they say, this is the type of music they like and comes naturally to them, and they fully embrace it with a down-to-earth sense of humour and modesty. “We’ve always sort of fancied ourselves as a soft rock band. I feel like our spiritual ancestors are like Jackson Browne. We’re trying to be this smooth, groovy-type band. If we had our way that’s exactly what we’d sound like, ’70s soft rock” Martin Courtney told Pitchfork.
Atlas, in the end, is a refreshingly unassuming and elegant record, with a well-crafted, human sound. And that is what music should always be, if nothing else.
Atlas is out now on Domino.