Suburbia’s manifest destiny may very well be found in the music of Real Estate, a band whose six years of existence has seen them rise above the glut of whine-by-numbers indie rock. The timing for the band’s upcoming show here in town couldn’t be better considering the fact that as summer-centric as it might seem, Real Estate’s music rewards the listener much more with stories that center themselves at the heart of retrospect and memory. In support of their latest release from earlier this year, the outstanding Atlas,the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Jersey quintet mark their return to Bottletree Café, on Sunday, Sept. 21, for a sold-out performance that’s likely to end up as one of Birmingham’s best shows this year.
Atlas brings along with it a small but important change in Real Estate’s lineup, with Matt Kallman of the now-defunct indie act Girls replacing Jonah Maurer on keyboards. The change is one that subtly shifts the band’s dynamic away from the confines of being a great dream pop band and into a realm of songwriting that’s remarkably compelling and vulnerable. Deceptively minimal, Matt Mondanile’s acoustic and electric guitar work is layered without washing the melody out. Even at its most lush and nearly orchestral, Mondanile’s picking is just as distinctive and crucial an element to the songs here as his wave-like strumming.
“And the only thing that matters / Is the one thing I can’t seem to do” sings vocalist Martin Courtney on “Talking Backwards”. Like their contemporaries in indie rock’s other ultra-hyped act, The War on Drugs, Real Estate’s aesthetic hinges on the partnership of contrast. That is, the music here is melodically focused with only the occasional minor or somber compositional digression. Conversely, the lyrics offer a domestic narrative of hope, loss, worry and love.
It’s the same kind of compositional honesty and disparity that set apart Real Estate’s obvious influences, like My Bloody Valentine or even the Beach Boys, and which is now providing the band their own perspective. Dream-pop is an apt label for many bands in the indie rock pipeline, but where abstract notions distance so many of those from any sense of relevance to the listener, Real Estate offer a grounded viewpoint with their harmonic tones and warm melodies paired alongside near-confessional lyrical deviations.
It’s a difficult task to pull off successfully, given the fact that those concepts of suburbia and the domestic American life are so utterly entrenched in the majority of audiences that what’s being offered might simply feel too familiar to be noticed. It’s precisely here where Real Estate find their most musically gorgeous moments, allowing the music to wash over the edges of certainty and into the lush reverie of a daydream. But what’s the difference? Themes of escapism have long been the bread and butter of rock and roll, so offering up something new is more than just a hard sell – it’s nearly impossible.
Real Estate’s answer to that potential minefield of mediocrity is simplicity. Just two minutes into album opener “Had to Hear”, the band’s secret success in pop minimalism is at its most arresting. Courtney’s relaxed and unassuming guitar strumming works in tandem lockstep with his even-keel delivery, rendering a picturesque scene that works less in explicit emotionalism and far more in the plainness of its subject matter. Boredom is the blacktop of suburbia, and it’s essentially the impetus for every distraction or hope to escape the confines of the cul-de-sac. Much of the band’s success has come directly from the members being well aware of this dynamic and capitalizing on the kind of disarming ease that often marries itself to the mundane in suburban America.
When “The Bend” starts with its subtle twilight cricket chirp background to guitarist Matt Mondanile’s loose strumming and the single note raindrop descant of Courtney’s lead guitar, Real Estate aren’t simply describing twilight in the neighborhood, they’re taking you there with every measure. “Past Lives” closes with the washed out dreamscape that immediately calls to mind the memory of running home at the end of the day. Courtney sings his retrospection with striking self-awareness in the song’s opening lines: “I cannot come back to this neighborhood / Without feeling my own age.”
For Real Estate the seemingly mundane is a mental refuge, if only briefly, away from the reality of growing up and growing old. The fact that the band can create an auditory environment centered on a kind of mental comfort food for the listener isn’t what pushes Real Estate’s music well past the often monotonous assortment of modern indie bands. The distinction here is that the music’s source is undoubtedly genuine, derived from a creative place where all five members feel as content and comfortable as the music they make.
For a band just three records into their existence, Real Estate have managed a coveted kind of impact and resonance in the digital age of immediacy where bands are revered and hyped as quickly as they are discarded. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that for all the brilliance on an album like Atlas, its most compellingly gorgeous moments are those which evoke a pause in the listener, almost as if the band’s music is little more than an invitation to slow down, if only for the duration of its 10 tracks.