Real Estate’s “Atlas” a Shimmering, Satisfying Achievement — One of 2014’s Best

3 Apr

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Real Estate is one of those bands that only a few people used to know about. When Real Estate released its self-titled debut in 2009, only your coolest friends were aware of it. This band is really going to be something their knowing smile may have said.

With the release of 2011’s Days, more critics and a wider audience took notice — especially after the band was on the bill at signature events such as the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2012.

Now it’s 2014, and if you’ve managed to ignore New Jersey-born, now Brooklyn-based Real Estate in the past, the band’s latest release, Atlas, makes that no longer an option.

Atlas provides a lush, rich landscape in which lead singer/songwriter, Martin Courtney — 28 and married with his first child due soon — explores some of the sadness and uncertainty that comes with aging, as we leave friends and familiar surroundings behind to move forward in new roles. In this sense, the band is exploring similar territory to that of Vampire Weekend on Modern Vampires of the City, another amazing album.

On “Past Lives,” Courtney sings, “I cannot come back to this neighborhood/Without feelin’ my own age/I walk past these houses where we once stood/I see past lives, but somehow you’re still here.” The bittersweet vocals are wrapped in a gorgeous, gauzy wall of sound created by Matt Mondanile’s bright, reverbed guitar and a timekeeping rhythm set up by Etienne Pierre Duguay.

The third track on the album, “Talking Backwards,” is one of the best indie jangle-pop songs released in recent years. One could describe this as a folk-rock tune, dressed up for the 2010s with a bright jangle that gives it energy and pace while Courtney laments, “I might as well be talking backwards/Am I making any sense to you?/And the only thing that really matters/Is the one thing I can’t seem to do.

“The Bend” is another standout track that is almost jazzy in its light and breezy construction, with a tight, polished arrangement reminiscent of Steely Dan in its heyday. Once again, amidst the glistening guitar chords and up-tempo rhythm, there’s the relentless questioning. Courtney sings, “It’s so hard to feel in control here/Like I’m behind the wheel and it won’t steer.” And again, later in the song, “I’m just trying to make some sense of this/Before I lose another year.”

“Primitive” has a great folk-rock feel, with a ringing guitar, wistful doubled vocals and rich harmonies in the chorus. “Horizon” makes use of similarly tripping chord progressions like those on “Talking Backward,” in a bright and bouncy tune. Courtney sings, “Just over the horizon/That’s where I always think you’ll be/It’s always so surprising/To find you right there next to me.”

The album ends with a reflective song, “Navigator.” If you haven’t gotten the point of the album yet, Courtney sings, “I stare at the hands on the clock/I’m still waiting for them to stop.”

Before you decide not to buy this album because of its depressing lyrics, consider that Courtney’s thoughts are always presented in a bemused, lighthearted tone and embraced with the warmth of Real Estate’s lush soundscapes.

As such, while many of the songs provide food for thought for twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings passing through life changes — Courtney’s perspective seems to be that it’s all good. Keep moving ahead and enjoy every moment.

 

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