North American music seems to be going through a crisis, a crisis of mistrust in and fear of suburbia. To be fair, if we defined suburbs the same way they do we’d probably be scared too. Whilst in the UK suburbs are a little belt of residential houses surrounding a built up area, in the states they’re more like our commuter towns. So for New Jersey imagine a gigantic version of Milton Keynes, it’s pretty damn horrible!
So perhaps it’s no surprise then that many a band has chosen to focus on this most unexciting of areas. Most famously perhaps Arcade Fire who’s third album The Suburbs was essentially a concept album about life in The Woodlands, Texas, a suburb of Houston. It covered all vagaries of suburban living, a land where “by the time the bombs fall, we were already bored”. Win remembered the summers he spent in with a broken arm, living life like a city with no children in it. Most of all they covered the need to escape the suburbs, to stop living in the sprawl. On Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) they perhaps summed it up better than anyone ever has
They heard me singing and they told me to stop,
Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.
Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small,
Can we ever get away from the sprawl?
Living in the sprawl,
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains,
And there’s no end in sight,
I need the darkness someone please cut the lights.
It’s surely a familiar feeling to anyone who grew up outside of the city landscapes, the feeling of hopelessness and a lack of like minded individuals is both a great inspiration to do something and a great hinderance to actually getting it done.
Of course it’s not a one way street, some bands have gone full circle. Take The National, if Alligator was the sound of a band craving to be “taken to a famous city middle” and Boxer was an apartment story, High Violet saw them all grown up and leaving “the silver city, because all the silver girls gave them black dreams”. There’s a great power in Berninger’s lyrics to communicate a time and place without laying it all out, he doesn’t express any love for his new suburban life, he accepts it for what it is, he’s not someone pushing to leave his city dreams behind he’s someone who wants “to believe in everything you believe”.
Music echo’s life, and perhaps more and more life echo’s music. We all want to get away from the sprawl, and part of the appeal is in the pictures our heroes paint.
REAL ESTATE – ATLAS
Real Estate are of course suburban guys, born and raised in New Jersey. They left that land behind and moved to the bright lights of New York. New York and Bands are something of a match made in Heaven of course. Though one of the major reasons for this is New Yorks ability to pull in people from all across not just the country but the globe. It is a musical sponge, taking talent and drawing it in, in much the same way London does on this side of the pond. However in the same way Wild Beasts reside in London and yet retain a sense of their rural upbringing and are more accepting of the requirement of London life than fond of it, so Real Estate remain routed in the way and sounds of New Jersey, they make a sound far too relaxed to feel like a true New York album. There’s none of the claustrophobic, brooding darkness of Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights, none of the angular art-pop of Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Fever To Tell, no Real Estate may be in the city, but they’re not part of it. Even the artwork to this their third album, recalls New Jersey as it references a piece of art that adorned a department store in their home city, a giant mural by Polish artist Stefan Knapp, now, along with the store it sat upon, long gone.
2011’s Days was the bands second record and one that propelled them to new levels of success and critical acclaim. Pitchfork raved about it, a series of support slots with the likes of Kurt Vile, Girls and Deerhunter followed and the band seemed destined for big things. Three years is a long time in music though and it does feel a long time since Real Estate existed as Real Estate. Not that the band members have been taking it easy, there was a good deal of success for Matt Mondanile’s side project Ducktails. Indeed it must have crossed some fans minds that following the release of Ducktails album The Flower Lane. Did Mondanile need Real Estate anymore? Certainly the sound of the two bands are far from dissimilar, the main reason behind that being that it’s the beautiful jangling tone of the guitars that propel both bands.
However thank goodness they did get back in the studio again! Three years have passed but from the very first guitar line it’s a brilliant reminder of what the were and still are about. It’s true there’s been no great sonic shift since Days, however there’s been an upping in production quality, loosing some of the slightly lo-fi sound of their previous records. Here they’ve embraced the studio environment, refined their sound and evolved rather than ripping up the rule book. The album was recorded in Wilco’s studio in Chicago and whilst Jeff Tweedy and co might well be an influence on the band they’ve resisted the urge to coat this album in the layers of Americana instrumentation Wilco favour, indeed with the exception of adding keyboardist Matt Kallman to their line up there’s very little going on here that wasn’t going on previously on Days.
Opening track Had To Hear is an excellent example of the Real Estate blue print. Starting of with a guitar line that would fit nicely anywhere in The Shins back catalogue, it’s then joined by a second decending guitar line with a beautifully twangy feel. An understated drum beat enters, before the gorgeous reverb heavy vocal drips over the top. Lyrically Martin Courtney sings about the classics, longing, girls and loneliness. It’s hardly new ground but his vocal style and lyrical content fit beautifully into the musical soundbed behind him.
Past Lives is greatly enhanced by the addition of keyboard, the intro is brilliant as a bell like piano is carried along by a brilliant bass line, before the intwined guitar lines return. Part of the great joy at the guitar playing is how heavily routed in melody it is. Whether it’s the tone or the mixing, throughout the album it seems to pitch itself as a co-conspirator with the lead vocal, not sat behind it but along side it, vowing for prominence. The playing is incredibly fluid, playfully floating around the fretboard creating not just brilliant riffs but almost extended drawn out solos, but with none of the implied pomp or bravado associated with that, Spinal Tap this ain’t, though there is the same sense of competition between talented members each trying to be heard on their own right.
Best of all is single Talking Backwards. A bouncy strummed guitar line plays alongside, a simple but perfectly paced drum beat as again the lead guitar floats around creating gorgeous melodies, it never for a second stands still, always adding something wonderful to the track. Whilst produced entirely differently there’s a touch of Johnny Marr’s work with The Smiths to the playing, another great weaver of guitar lines. Lyrically it’s a tale of not being able to find the words to explain the way you’re feeling “and I might as well be talking backwards” is hardly the words of a great poet but you find me a teenage boy who doesn’t understand that feeling and I’ll show you a false prophet.
April’s song is a wonderful instrumental interlude, that sounds a bit like No Age, if No Age were having the best day of their life and were super happy about it. The Bend, starts off all Eric Clapton, and has a vaguely soft-rock feel, before taking a darker u-turn. Sometimes you feel like Real Estate aren’t like other bands, whilst most people repeat guitar fragments and let the lyrics change they seem to do the opposite. The Bend is a prime example, and whilst their claim it has “a big bombastic classic rock outro” is so far from the truth it does add a touch of shade to the proceedings. Indeed it’s a fairly autumnal sounding album, there’s a sense of faded summers and good times gone, but not forgotten. They recall the other great masters of Autumn shades Yo La Tengo in places, which is never a bad thing.
A simple criticism of the record that I have seen some reviewers is that for all it’s beautiful jangling tones it lacks the depth of their previous work. This however just isn’t true on almost every track there’s something wonderful hiding under there. Crime lays out the great fears of a modern day slacker “I don’t want to die lonely and up-tight” to the sound of a wonderful guitar line. The acoustic guitar that introduces Primitive, is stunningly good as he lays out the lyrical crux of the matter “I don’t know where I want to be, but I’m glad that you’re with me, and all I know is it’d be easy to leave” this is a man going through that most everyday of crisis that is debating the point of it all. Pining for the past whilst knowing he doesn’t belong there and it wouldn’t exist if he ever went back to check on it.
How Might I Live, is the most grandiose number here and with Alex Bleeker taking over vocal duties, sounds like a perfect hybrid of Sparklehore and Grandaddy, it’s wonderful. Ok, Horizon is a bit too much in awe of The Shins but it’s a rare blip, and just leads the listener into the beautiful hazy perfection of Navigator. It’s one of the least likely closing tracks ever, it drifts along like a very mellow Modest Mouse track. A superb bass line playing the counter foil to the albums best of many brilliant guitar lines. Martin Courtney sings “I don’t know where that time went” and listening to this album that’s a common feeling. It clocks in at 38 minutes, but seems to fly by, it’d be easy to just let it wash over you and move on, but look closely and there’s great beauty here, as the last track simply drifts out, with no crescendo, no statement to say this is the end we hope you liked it, nothing, it’s just how you’d want it to end.
Atlas the 3rd album by Real Estate is out now on Domino Records