Cynics be damned: however the hype machine happens to play this one out, Real Estate have overcome the critics and released one of the most refreshing, satisfying and richly rewarding albums of 2009.
In today's culture, the blogosphere moves with such spitting tenacity, and wields such a ruly force over independent music, that once-loved darlings of the self-appointed press become enemies of the state before their first scrap of music is ever officially turned out for public consumption. While the whole issue of today's scene vs. yesterday's scene is, of course, one of subjectivity, the issue over the immediacy of release and influence -- and the rapidly diminishing gap between the two -- is one of absolutely no debate. Enter Real Estate, whose debut album this week has been precipitated by indie stalwarts the globe over generating a steady stream of ever-glowing buzz. Their detached emotionalism, ragged endearment, dominance of atmosphere, and consolidation of a scene's worth of musical attributes may make them prime candidates for scorn, backlash and overzealous categorization, but underneath all of those lingering, superficial observations lay several crucial elements that separate Real Estate from the wild pack of indie up-and-comers and anoints them a certain degree of transcendence over their peers.
Gliding by smoothly on an embarrassment of riches in both sonic texture and instrumental dexterity, Real Estate don't so much push their music forward as stroll breezily from one unintended peak to the next. Nothing here seems overly pre-meditated, the band's enviable fluidity and natural progressions between subtle mood shifts are all a matter of time and inevitability, not overexertion; their tight playing and cohesion a matter of chemistry, not labored production or layered studio wizardry. That unassuming nature, that unhurried essence of intuition over studiousness, is what keeps the band relevant, and even subversive, in today's blanketing, overanxious status quo of obsessive overreach. Nowhere on this album is that better illustrated than on "Suburban Beverage", a six-minute jam whose entire vocal part consists of the repeated refrain "Budweiser, Sprite / Do you feel all right?" In less capable hands, the song may ponder aimlessly, boring the listener to tears, but here the pithy lyrics take on an enforcement of mood, drifting in and out of the hazy guitar interplay, tying together the sentiments buried inside, just waiting to envelope its audience.
Real Estate don't force their message on you through brash caterwauling or a brutal in-your-face attitude; rather, through their languid yet mercurial playing, they invite you in to find it for yourself. That seems to be the general motif here, each song pulling you into its shimmering, foggy glory through a stream of laid-back, intertwining components, all complementing their bigger purpose, the whole being more important than the sum of its parts. What the group lacks in punk's urgency and immediacy, they more than compensate for with their firm assertion of electronic and experimental music's ambiance and their skilled use of pop's timeless melody. They are ready and able to utilize two entirely different aesthetics to execute one unified vision that's as admirable for how many bands misfire in similar endeavors as it for the ease in which they succeed.
All of this would be mere window-dressing if it weren't for a set of sturdy, memorable songs, all circling a common thread of bittersweet nostalgia and warm, forlorn wistfulness. Much has been said about the seasonal tones on Real Estate's debut, but what's so remarkable about it is that it sounds just as welcoming, just as revitalizing, on crisp, fall evenings as it did during the humid decay of summer. That's in part due to the band's utter command of atmosphere -- the way they're able to conjure images of times past through their dreamy, evocative form of craftsmanship -- but also because each song contains in itself a world of its own. If that isn't the sign of a great song, then it's beyond me what is. "Beach Comber" and "Fake Blues" make themselves known as the pillars throughout, the album's most accessible takes on their own brand of sparkling, cloudy surf-pop, conjuring images of lazy summer afternoons on sandy dunes just as aptly as it elicits daydreams of familial, autumnal bonfires on the same endless beach.
What's exciting about the album's replay value is in the revelation that its less immediate songs are, after subsequent spins, ultimately just as gratifying as its stand-outs, and just as imperative to its success. "Green River" flows on carefree and sublime with its strummy acoustic guitar providing an ample bed for the spangled six-string ruminations that ebb over it. Guitarist/vocalist Martin Courtney's boyish request "[is] it all right if I walk next to you?" takes on added poignancy underneath a slather of fuzziness that equates romantic uncertainty and yearning for yesterday as effortlessly as a spring breeze. "Black Lake" brambles along with a suppressed menace echoed in the bouncing, loping bassline that carries the song along on its back, allowing it to breathe where more forceful musicians would suffocate it without hesitation. Even the fully instrumental tracks, "Atlantic City" and "Let's Rock the Beach", act as effective palette cleansers, rolling out their respective following songs with an unraveling red carpet that allows for their maximum emotional impact. All aspects of songwriting and musicianship work in tandem here, cleverly suggesting endearing loose ends where there are none.
There will be detractors of this band who are more interested in chasing down the Next Big Thing than they are in discovering honestly great music, but for those with the unnerving patience required in today's fast-paced music scene, this album repays dividends. You may have to spend some time wandering its dusty, lonely streets, but as any old-fashioned music fan would attest to, that's the way it should be, the way it was back in the "good ol' days". Cynics be damned: however the hype machine happens to play this one out, Real Estate have overcome the critics and released one of the most refreshing, satisfying and richly rewarding albums of 2009.