Album Review: Real Estate- Atlas
If you listened to any “alternative rock” at the dawn of the 90s—the first 15 seconds or so of the new Real Estate album may sound very familiar to you. The simple, strummy, and clean sounding electric guitar that opens up “Had to Hear,” is not so much derivative of any one particular song, but of an entire style of music from, say, 1990 to 1995 or 96.
Let’s just flashback to 2009 for a moment if we can—the summer that brought us things like “chillwave,” as well as bands like Real Estate, and their contemporaries, Girls—two bands with practically un-Googleable names. Girls fizzled out within, like, two and a half years, but Real Estate still keep plugging away, making very deliberately “laid back” indie rock, riding a slightly different chill wave, if you will.
Thinking about the band Real Estate actually makes me think of real estate—around the time their self-titled debut was blowing up, making the rounds on the Internet, my wife and I were in the process of trying to buy a house, and were constantly packing up our belongings, getting ready to leave the rental place we had been living in. I think it was actually both that Real Estate album, and the fist Girls album that I listened to a lot when packing up our old office.
Anyway, I'm digressing here.
I wised up to Real Estate in 2011, with the release of their 2nd LP, Days, because it was then I realized just how boring this band is. Sure, they can occasionally write catchy songs—“It’s Real,” the incredibly up-tempo single from Days is very infectious. But catchy doesn't equate good, or interesting, or not boring as fuck.
Listening to Real Estate’s third full length, Atlas, is an exercise in patience—but usually, if you are patient, there’s some kind of payoff, or reward in your future. However, with Atlas, I suppose the real reward is that it ends after ten songs, and then you choose to never listen to it again, as I certainly will be doing.
The real difficulty with the music that Real Estate makes is that it just doesn't go anywhere. I don't want to say it’s wholesome music, but it’s aimless, nonthreatening, and uninteresting. The band seems to turn up the “indie charm” factor, churning out affable guitar-based pop music that is meant to be widely embraced, albeit bland and sterile—similar to Vampire Weekend. Except here, there’s less of a Graceland/Ivy League influence, more of a jangle pop/alt rock slant, with a heavily Instagrammed filter placed on the most boring memories from your childhood.
Again, Real Estate are an outfit that are able to write a catchy song, and they seem like capable musicians, but their sound is not dynamic. This is a case where almost every song, quite literally, sounds the same. They're all structured around a low-mixed, but a crisp sounding rhythm section, strummy electric and acoustic guitars, and some lead guitar “noodling.” Of all the somewhat catchy tracks on the record—take “Talking Backwards,” and “Crime,” for example—they are so similar that you may as well just play them both at the same time, and I highly doubt anyone would notice.
Real Estate have grown a bit in the last five years, but they are nowhere near growing out of their comfort zone. They probably never will. If anything, they may have regressed farther into it. On their self-titled debut, there is a bit of a youthful yearning for something bigger expressed in the vocal delivery of a song like “Beach Comber.” I think that yearning is gone now, and as a band made up of guys in their late 20s, they are making dad rock for people that may not be fathers yet.
Also, each subsequent release since their humble 2009 beginnings just sounds like more and more money was thrown at it. Real Estate’s lo-fi aesthetics are a thing of the past, trading up for a much more polished and expensive vibe.
At an efficient 38 minutes, you'd think Atlas would be a fast listen. However, that is far from the truth. It plods along at about the same pace as a director’s cut of a movie about molasses rolling uphill.
Because I'm such a jerk about music, and because I really don’t like Real Estate (if you couldn't tell already) I almost skipped reviewing this record completely. There’s really no shortage of material for me to write about for this site. I happened to see the release date coming up for it, and I thought, “Gee, I wonder if Real Estate are still shitting out boring drudgery like they have in the past?” So I thought I'd give it a listen and see if, as a band, they had decided to…I don't know…expand their palate at all.
It turns out they haven’t.
The more uninteresting music I subject myself to for the sake of this site, the more fitting the name I chose becomes. An album like Atlas, and a soulless band like Real Estate really suck any joy out of listening to music. I have a difficult time attempting to decipher whom the average Real Estate “fan” is, because I can't imagine anyone wanting to be bored to tears all the time.
Atlas is a lifeless effort, which is too bad, because it seems like people put something resembling work into this record. Songs were written and instruments played. It was recorded to tape and then mixed and mastered and mass-produced, all presumably on the record company’s dime. But in the end it’s just a huge waste of time.
Unsurprisingly, in the days since I started writing this piece, Pitchfork knighted Atlas with the title of “Best New Music,” giving it an 8.8, with writer Jayson Green’s hyperbole filled review stating that the record is “forlorn and beautiful.” It’s praise like this—and I mean I’m sure my low opinion of a band like Real Estate is in the minority—that has me wondering if I’m just flat out doing it wrong. Like, am I listening to this record the wrong way? It is times like this where I begin to second-guess my gut instinct about something, and I wonder what I am missing.
The truth is that as hard as I try, I cannot force myself to “like” anything. If it doesn't click with me, the odds of it working out later on are very slim. I shouldn't feel bad or guilty for not liking Atlas, or Real Estate, because I just simply am not connecting with this music. There is no substance to these songs, and that’s a real trend in contemporary popular music that I've noticed recently, and it has me a little worried.