Real Estate is in many ways as close as to what you get to a “known quantity” as you can get in indie rock. They have a signature sound that is apparent from any track picked at random from their catalog–a laid-back, shimmery guitar rock, but don’t emphasize the “rock” so much, you don’t want to harsh everyone’s mellow. This is not meant to be a dig on the band at all. We should be thankful that they’ve managed to be so distinctive and original that a listener can tell instantly whether or not they like the band. Instead, we should wonder how a band from Ridgewood, NJ is able to recreate the feeling of a lazy Southern California summer day so well.
One can then easily appreciate their sound overall, and their albums as a whole, but it normally takes an effort to distinguish between the individual songs themselves. For example, when I first listened to their previous album Days, I enjoyed the overall vibe of the record: a perfect soundtrack for relaxing and either reflecting on the pleasant weather outside or maybe just creating an image in my head of what I wish the weather actually was. But it took several listens before I could pick out the intricacies of the individual songs, even the singles. The details eventually revealed themselves over several listens, such as the amiable bassline melody of “Younger Than Yesterday” or the slow deconstruction of “All The Same”. The album was no longer just a congenial haze, but a collection of distinctly gorgeous songs.
The new album Atlas follows a similar pattern. It definitely has the same trademark Real Estate sound, which is by design (the band has stated that they’re not interested in radically transforming their style from record-to-record). One therefore shouldn’t expect any real evolution within the confines of their style. But there are refinements and new details that make the album worth exploring. Hell, the band even came up with a really catchy single with “Talking Backwards”, which manages the neat trick of being a perfect encapsulation of the band that’s also presented in a hooky, toe-tapping manner that should capture the ear of any new listener. Even though the lyrical subject of the need for communication is one that’s been covered many times before, the band still manages to be engaging; sometimes exchanging comfort for originality is a fair trade-off. Real Estate does an equally good job with ballads as well, though the difference between the ballads and the “rockers” on a Real Estate album are about 10 beats per minute. Real Estate knows their strengths, and plays to them well.
However, one gets the feeling that there were some missed opportunities on the album. One of the highlights of the album is the song “The Bend”, a mid-tempo number that pleasantly chugs along, right up until the moment the tempo suddenly shifts at about four minutes in and the chugging nearly grinds to a halt. It’s a dramatic moment, as the band stops on a dime, and it immediately grabs the listener’s attention and takes him or her out of their previous groove. The deliberate beat also gives the lead guitar lines an additional emotional heft, as they wring out as much passion with each note as possible. It’s a great moment, and since it occurs in the middle of the album, one expects perhaps that the record will shift directions. The band instead goes right back into their wheelhouse and dives back into their standard jangly guitar rock, which is fine and what I expected when I bought the album, but it still leaves me wondering where else the band could have gone instead.
*There is one complaint that I have from the various reviews I’ve seen: comparing Real Estate to Television is pretty damn lazy. Both bands have two guitarists and…that’s about where the similarities end. If anyone wonders why Television is considered punk rock, a quick comparison to Real Estate should give him or her a clue.