A wistful, timeless indie classic that subtly rewards in understated ways.
By: Jack Stein
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Nearly everything about burgeoning Ridgewood, New Jersey crew Real Estate is understated, unassuming, even slight. The band name itself is so generic it crashes Google; the near-extinct “Traditional Indie Band Lineup” (vocalist/guitar/bass/ drums…no MPCs or 808s?!) that Real Estate employs harkens to the halcyon days when Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. were ruling college airwaves; the sonics themselves are a delightfully hazy web of jangled guitars, pattering drums and gently murmured vocals, certainly nothing remotely close to the shot of norepinephrene that so much of 2011’s music attemped to administer (insert dubstep dig here.) Indeed, especially amid the Year of Cacophony that so often greeted us in 2011- from M83’s in-your-face earnestness, the unrelenting pulse of Skrillex and cronies, and even the thunderous boom-bap of Clams Casino – Real Estate seems almost out of place with the current sonic landscape. However, therein lies the beauty of this band’s approach. What these four nonchalant guys from suburban New Jersey have quietly done is (shh…) crafted one of the most wistful, tersely gorgeous, and simply masterful records of the year, proving that, in the hands of exceptional songwriters, less is often more. And to think: all done without turning on a distortion pedal, employing a synthesizer, or raising the vocals above an insistent coo.
The secret behind Real Estate’s tremendous successes here lies beneath the sonically placid surface in the astounding levels of emotional accuracy with which they depict the ubiquitously uneasy feeling of searching to find one’s place in this world. The lyrics take much more of a precedence here than on their comparably hazy self-titled 2009 debut, with Martin Courtney’s vocals pushed to the front of the mix – and with dramatic effects. The songs alternate between brilliant paens to nostalgia for a youth and carelessness long lost (“Green Aisles”, “Three Blocks”), wistfulness towards a past love (“Wonder Years”), or an insistent desire to believe in something authentic in a world where seemingly so little is (“It’s Real.) Similarly to how the increased clarity of the vocals on Deerhunter’s latest effort Halcyon Digest served to shine a light on the previously obscured thematic content, this crucial change takes the jams from stoned and ambling to purposeful, direct, and almost blindingly bright (in a late August, setting-sun kind of way.)
Days, upon its October release, felt like the auditory equivalent of an autumn sweater, the warm guitar coda of “Out of Tune” recalling sun-dappled leaves tumbling from trees, the triumphant “Younger than Yesterday” serving as the perfect soundtrack to a stroll through the crisp outdoors. However, as the seasons have changed, so ever-slightly has the aural effect of these ten quietly beautiful tracks. The jangled strums of “Easy” pack as much of a punch soundtracking an amble down a frozen street as they did during warmer days, and the effects of this album’s subtly shifting sonics seem destined to translate equally well to all seasons.
What Days evokes most acutely, more than just a particular season or time, is a feeling of (perhaps constructed) staid contentment and fulfillment amid a world careening by at 1,000 miles an hour. Vocalist and primary songwriter Courtney wrote much of his band’s similarly wistful 2009 debut while studying the arts in Olympia, WA, far from his New Jersey home, and the pangs of placelessness and unfiltered nostalgia here surface periodically until, like a well-intentioned friend, the warm & jangly framework of Real Estate’s instrumentation quells any worries that may have arisen, assuring us that things will be alright.
As someone who relocated far from everything I had previously known to begin a demanding and challenging work stint this past fall, Days arrived at the perfect time and served as a companion for trying circumstances. Too intelligently constructed and multifaceted to be simply written off as aural comfort food, yet too emotionally resonant and reflection-inducing to be merely a great pop record, the record instead finds itself straddling both camps, a testament to the power of the human spirit to simultaneously acknowledge our troubles while finding the courage to strum away at a better, more contented future. It smartly eschews mere melancholy, rather imbuing the difficult moments in our lives with a sense of hopefulness that has been truly timeless within the best pop music of the modern era. For this and much more, Days stands tall as a Must Listen, and as one of the finest records of the past year.
Highlights: “Out of Tune”, “Green Aisles”, “It’s Real”, “All the Same”
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