Real Estate had existed for maybe a year when their eponymous debut album made them critics’ darlings. Their wet, sundrenched Byrds-esque sound owed debts in equal measure to The Beach Boys and REM. It was, apparently, what the indie rock “intelligentsia” had longed for.
They followed that up with “Days”, a solid if unexceptional collection of tunes forged amongst musicians refining both their chops and production style. “Days” inspired me to anticipate something great from Real Estate’s third album “Atlas” (releasing March 4).
Those lofty expectations have left me a little disappointed with this effort. It’s my own fault for expecting precocity from a band with a reputation of steady workmanship. If you’re looking for the best version of Real Estate yet, “Atlas” delivers. If it’s exposition of untapped potential you seek, like me, you’re likely to be a bit disappointed.
Real Estate have sharpened their style to a scalpel’s blade. Perhaps attempting to stylistically expand is a thankless task when their output is so consistently pleasant to listen to. Why fix what works like clockwork? “Talking Backwards”, a standout track, is a beautiful blend of wet vocals and chiming lead guitar. Everything seems to fit.
And that’s the problem. It fits too well. Real Estate have so distilled their approach, namely the generous use of reverb, that the music’s impact is diminished. It is rare to hear a lead guitar without a healthy dose of reverb and tremolo or a clean vocal. The result is that the music fades into an innocuous blend, floating ephemerally in the background without calling the listener to attention.
The 80s jangle pop bands were so great because they combined their predecessor genres’ stylistic hallmarks with a nervous energy that kept everything moving forward. Compare “Atlas” opener “Had To Hear” with REM’s “Harborcoat” or The DB’s “Black And White”. There is a dramatic force missing from Real Estate’s third album that keeps it from being great.
When Real Estate do jump into newer territory, they do it well. “Primitive” is an engaging country melody with a jangle sheen, and “How Might I Live” is a tantalizing hint of what the band is capable of when they turn the reverb down a bit (though it is very much still there). These moments are unfortunately too few, and Real Estate consistently retreats back into their comfort zone.
If this review seems overly negative, it’s because I’m expounding on what is disappointing as opposed to what is excellent. Real Estate fans all know what the band does well, and they’ve never done it better than on “Atlas”. There is no shame in enjoying the simple pleasures of pleasant melodies and soothing harmonies. “Atlas” is a calming collection of generally unambitious tunes. It is excellent background music, and I anticipate frequently listening to it in that context.
Should I Listen? Yes.