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Real Estate Get a Little Less Chill and a Little More Proactive on the Surprisingly Bracing ‘Atlas’

Real Estate / Photo by Jolie Ruben
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: March 04, 2014
Label: Domino

On the one hand, Real Estate are annoying. I’m saying this to hurt their feelings; their music could use a little hurt. One of the most inoffensive rock bands of all time, their name halves another outfit’s far more stinging one (Sunny Day Real Estate), while their music is the Feelies minus the crazy rhythms, all velvet and no underground. In interviews, they’re careful not to expect too much: “We’re not trying to make the soundtrack to your summer,” bassist Alex Bleeker recently told us. Sometimes, they’re hesitant to even take responsibility for their own chord changes: “Nobody ever said out loud that that’s what we’re gonna do,” frontman Martin Courtney once told me, dissecting a track from their second album, 2011’s Days. “But it just, like, organically occurred.”

What’s great about Atlas, the quintet’s huge, intentional about-face of a third record, is that it most definitely didn’t organically occur. We already expected pastoral folk-rock with dewy thickets of guitar lines that ripple like a pond. But they’ve internalized the difference between relaxation and an aural shrug. You’ll swear you can hear crickets on “The Bend,” or that you can have four-minute sex to “Past Lives.” And yes, there are pop songs, too: No way “Talking Backwards” was born from some inverse Bon Iver cabin retreat in the rainforest. It’s so well-crafted you can smell the model airplane glue. But everyone expects that of the single, so check out the subsequent “April’s Song” instead, an instrumental that you’ll hum anyway. Courtney and his double-Ducktails-duty comrade Matt Mondanile would like us to believe that those guitars played themselves, but the truth is these guys have been listening to Luna’s Penthouse, or at least Rendezvous.

Days and the band’s 2009 self-titled debut were by no means unfriendly, but new songs like “Crime” and the Belle & Sebastian fakeout “Primitive” are proactive at hooking an audience these guys don’t like to admit is there, and acknowledging a musical lineage that goes beyond the humble “just do what we like” mentality: “Talking Backwards” has some Byrdsy twang, while “The Bend” is a samba blues. And the predictably sparkling production and close-miked drums always help songs whose most urgent struggles amount to “Or do I sound insincere / I’m just trying to make some sense of this / Before I lose another year.” Real Estate worry over being “easy” the way Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino frets that she’s “crazy.” But there’s a welcome ardency and complexity to Atlas; the most insincere line on the record is, “All will be revealed.” Not if they can help it.