The More That Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
Things are looking pretty up and up for the New Jersey quartet that comprises Real Estate. Their 2009 eponymous album earned high praise, high enough to attract the attention of the fairly big name British independent label Domino Records, which is releasing the group’s sophomore effort Days. That’s a pretty big feat, considering that Domino has been responsible for unleashing buzz bands onto the world such as Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand. While it’s hard to say if Real Estate will reach the same kind of indie crossover into the mainstream as the two aforementioned bands, you have to admit that that’s pretty good company to keep. While their move to a bigger label might seem to be a given, Domino does seem like a bit of a strange bedfellow, considering that Real Estate has very little to do with Britpop and deals exclusively in a form of hazy American surf rock that is somewhat reminiscent of early R.E.M. (R.I.P.), and, as such, is additionally a throwback to a sort of psychedelic version of jangle rock. That connection is further bolstered by the fact that there’s a song on Days titled “Younger Than Yesterday”, which, of course, any respectable fan of ‘60s music can tell you is the title of a seminal 1967 album by the Byrds—you know, the one with “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” on it. Is that a sign that Real Estate is suddenly reaching out for the brass ring? Perhaps, perhaps.
The most notable thing that you can say about Days is that the group has changed up its sound a little bit to sound brighter, slightly more cheerful, and more panoramic. Days is much more of a widescreen affair, presumably due to a bump in recording budget and the fact that it was recorded during a five-month period with Kevin McMahon, who had previously worked with fellow New Jersey-ites Titus Andronicus as well as the Walkmen. However, despite the presence of a much more polished sheen, some things in Real Estate’s sound remain exactly as before. Days is a narcotic affair, the kind of thing you would take some soft-core drugs to space out to, and feels downright and appropriately (for the season the album is being released in) autumnal. These ten songs are the sort of thing you could wear a fleece jacket or a woollen sweater to, so when frontman Martin Courtney tells us on “Green Aisles” that “The winter was coming / And that was alright,” you can practically feel the inevitability of the slight chill and crispness in the air. Real Estate is a band that seems prepared for the unbearably long nights and frigidity of the months when the ground is painted white and glitters like diamonds in the pale blank light of a full moon.
Despite the bigger production values, it seems that Real Estate was content in simply refining and honing its throwback sound only very slightly. Just as was the case on Real Estate, the group is unafraid to stretch out and jam. A case in point would be “Kinder Blumen”, a four-minute instrumental that is seemingly drawn out as though the band were careening down a lonesome and deserted highway at night. It has form and structure, as though Courtney was ready to step out in front of his microphone, before realising that he had nothing to say. “Out of Tune” similarly floats on an airy landscape where the guitars are carefully plucked in a vital and stunning display. The final song, which clocks in at seven-and-a-half minutes in length, has a midsection where the band just surfs on a wave of melancholic and aching melody, riding it and riding it until the wave finally slows down as it nears the shoreline and then crashes in amongst itself. When it comes down to brass tacks, it would have seemed more appropriate if the album had been called Daze, as there’s a certain tendency to repeat eight-bar snippets to the point of near expiry.
However, Real Estate might have known that it wasn’t straying too far from its tried and true formula, as the closing number, alluded to above, is titled “All the Same”. There is truthfulness to that in evaluating Days as a whole, because they haven’t really delivered something truly new and unique. The songs on Days could be largely interchangeable with those on Real Estate, and, what’s more, there isn’t a really obvious attention grabber of a tune here as “Beach Comber” was in introducing the debut disc. Still, there are a bevy of fine moments scattered across Days, and the record in its entirety is a smooth and well crafted affair. You can throw Days on shuffle mode and experience the same sensation of Sturm und Drang that caresses this album in its natural running order. Things are interchangeable. Things are mere pieces of the whole. Things are more or less similar, in comparison to the band’s past effort. Will Days earn Real Estate new fans? Hard to say. But for those who have come this far along on the journey, Days is a leaves crunching perfect soundtrack to the sudden briskness that a change of season brings. For now, that seems to be enough and Real Estate seems content to be an indie band du jour, simply by largely creating the same sonic landscape that it had already painted in the past. The sound might be crisper, but ultimately on Days, the song remains the same.