Criticizing a record for “playing it safe” is a pretty safe way of saving face as a music critic when you don’t particularly vibe with it. This critical hang-up, if not clearly explained and analytically applied, may reveal a lot about how a critic engages with music. It may reveal, for example, a bias toward experimentation over conventional form, which could severely limit a critic’s perspective on ‘accessible’ music. In this review of indie rock group Real Estate’s third full-length record, Atlas, I will carefully separate two oft conflated analytical categories: form and affectation, and hopefully elucidate why exactly I think Atlas is, despite its numerous pleasant qualities, an utterly unremarkable record.
First, let me address where I’m coming from as a music lover and a music critic. Although I generally gravitate toward ‘experimental’ and what may be called ‘difficult’ music, there are a handful of ‘straightforward’ guitar-based indie rock/alternative records released in recent years that have left a significant impression on me. Here is a list of some examples: The Worse Thing Get… by Neko Case (2013), The Terror by The Flaming Lips (2013), Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend (2013), Reflektor by Arcade Fire (2013), Bloom by Beach House (2012), The Idler Wheel… by Fiona Apple (2012), Past Life Martyred Saints by EMA (2011), Bon Iver, Bon Iver by Bon Iver (2011), Kaputt by Destroyer (2011), Smoke Ring for My Halo by Kurt Vile (2011), Strange Mercy by St. Vincent (2011), Let England Shake by PJ Harvey (2011), Leave Home by the Men (2011), Teen Dream by Beach House (2010), Before Today by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti (2010), and even Real Estate’s 2009 self-titled debut. These records, while not at all ‘difficult,’ make an impact because they are all viscerally emotional, unwaveringly passionate, and—despite a conservation of form—uniquely creative.
It helps, of course, that these are all infectious indie rock records that benefit from general ‘accessibility’ on one hand and emotional ‘relatability’ on another, yet in such a diverse musical climate, genre doesn’t really matter anymore in terms of what makes a record remarkable or relatable or not; form is not function and neither is affectation. What does matter is that what these aforementioned records carry on from earlier indie rock is not just an appreciation of stylistic form, but a zeal for raw human emotion in music over standardization of ‘relatable’ musical touchstones. Atlas, by contrast, seems reminiscent of indie rock (and 1960s beach music) in form, but it lacks that spark that makes its contemporaries so affective on so many more levels than ‘this is a genre I like.’
Sonically, Atlas is pristine; no element sticks out, each instrument is discernable and clean yet no part takes over, effects are applied conservatively, there are virtually no curveballs other than a few welcomely odd pitch bends and unexpected interval leaps; an adept music theorist could notate each part by ear relatively easily, most likely a few bars ahead. Of course, form is not what defines Atlas critically, and ‘formulaic composition’ is not ultimately grounds for negative criticism; it is, however, apparent that vague familiarity—both structurally and melodically—is where Atlas draws most of its appeal.
I don’t really remember individual track names on Atlas (which are all amusingly vague anyway in typical Real Estate fashion, which I kind of appreciate) except for single “Crime,” which sounds like a Michael Bublé song minus horn flares and, you know, Bublé’s impossibly on point voice. Its music video, an informational video called “How to Play ‘Crime’ by Real Estate,” displays lead and rhythm guitar tabs so you can follow along, which further illuminates that Atlas is basically a CD insert in a textbook on Indie Rock 101. Even that guitar solo on “Crime” sounds premeditated, almost didactic; lead guitarist Matt Mondanile—also of hypnogogic pop group Ducktails—nails it, as expected, but how much does that elate an already static play-by-numbers jangle pop tune? Atlas is at least remarkably consistent; it never disrupts or contradicts itself and it flows effortlessly, a major plus for sequencing sticklers like myself. Unfortunately, this does not make up for my impression that Atlas’s consistency results in an unmemorable emotional wash rather than a wash of emotion.
Atlas’s main problem, however, is not that it is ‘simplistic’ or ‘retroactive’ or ‘easy’ or ‘safe’ or ‘mundane’ or ‘inoffensive’ or even ‘unvaried’—there are great records that possess these traits and still wrestle out moments of rapturous dynamism—its that it embraces these qualities in a way that obscures what could have made it a gem in its own right. Great art is not necessarily defined by ‘grandiosity’ or ‘technical complexity’ or even ‘boldfaced originality,’ but in a world full of intriguing landmarks sprawled across sonic landscapes, Atlas blends in so much that it is barely distinguishable from its placid surroundings.
Real Estate make the opposite of punk rock. Their music is safe, guarded, comforting, sweet. It’s the sound of suburbia from the parent’s perspective instead of the kid’s. As such, the band’s third album, Atlas, contrasts its globe-trotting alias with a pointed focus on the home and the joys waiting therein.
For those who can appreciate an album that celebrates the boundary instead of pushing it, Atlas subtly and effectively broadens the Real Estate color pallet from the nostalgic, autumnal oranges and reds of Days into the deep blues and grays of adult anxiety and contemplation.
“Crime” combines both new hues into a portrait of marital hopes and worries. “I don’t wanna die, lonely and uptight” sings Martin Courtney in his pristine, bookish voice, and the guitars answer with an almost krautrock-like sense of momentum. It’s not a flashy song, but it’s a prime example of how, musically, Real Estate can go toe to toe with just about any indie rock band in the game and come out ahead (glasses askew). Courtney and Matt Mondanile (also known for his solo work as Ducktails) have perfected a kind of dense but direct playing style that maintains a swirling rhythm track while allowing crystalline lead notes to jump directly out of the gauze.
This has been the Real Estate formula forever, but the back half of Atlas takes some time to try out a couple of new ideas. Bassist Alex Bleeker does his best Ira Kaplan impersonation on his only vocal credit, “How Might I Live,” which, with it’s gently rocking drums and shimmering organ, could have fit right onto any golden era Yo La Tengo album. It’s a stand-out moment, and it transitions directly into the haunting, cascading “Horizon”. And then there’s “Primitive,” a textbook Real Estate song made even warmer and more tender through a docile guitar solo and prominent backing organ. Only “April’s Song” truly disappoints. It’s the kind of bland, inoffensive guitar instrumental that reinforces the old adage that every Real Estate song sounds the same.
And truth be told, as long as the band keeps making such accomplished, complacent pop music that idea will never go away. You can get behind the swooning, chiming “Talking Backwards” or you can trash it for being derivative and unexciting, but it likely won’t change your life either way. This continues to be music that will always be there for you, like the couch in the living room or the pile of dishes in the sink. It doesn’t transport you, it keeps you right where you are.
Atlas is out now on Domino Records.