Somewhere just off the Garden State Parkway -- say around Exit 98 -- we're expecting to find the unbustling intersection of unpretentious indie guitar alt/pop and hazy dream/pop, the two stylistic pathways traveled by New Jersey's critical darlings Real Estate. Third album of jangle n' chime melodies -- Atlas, out this week -- is sort of a meditation on strummy, Shin-ny scuffed shoegaze (the vintage Doc Marten varietal). Producer Tom Schick (Mavis Staples, Low), a familiar face around Wilco's The Loft Studio in Chicago, helps reinforce Real Estate's mellow melancholy with a sound that's full but uncluttered. Songs like lead single "Talking Backwards" (click through to stream) and DC fave "Past Lives" have a depth of sure-footed purpose hinted at on earlier works. The result is both organic and surprisingly urbane from a band that wears its sophistication lightly and comfortably. No big deal. They're from Jersey, after all.
Real Estate - "Past Lives" (from Atlas)
Real Estate - "Talking Backwards" (from Atlas)
Jersey-bred indie rock golden boys Real Estate arrived in the late 2000s with a subdued approach to guitar rock that stripped away all unnecessary clutter and presented their tuneful songs in a manner as attractive and steadfast as primary colors, spring days, comfort food, or any of life's basic staples. Free of gimmicks, pretense, and artifice, their tunes tapped into the insular, college-aged melancholia of the Clean or Yo La Tengo's soft summer-night pulsations, later moving into a markedly Go-Betweens-steeped phase on their more sophisticated 2011 album, Days. With third full-length Atlas, Real Estate grow even further into the sound they've been spinning for themselves, mellowing more while they become more nuanced in both playing and production. Beginning with "Had to Hear," the band's sound is decidedly signature, based on chiming chords and lilting vocals from songwriter Martin Courtney, lead guitar from Matt Mondanile that wanders between psychedelic curiosity and airy punctuation, and the surefooted rhythm section of drummer Jackson Pollis and bassist Alex Bleeker. All these elements feel increasingly familiar and confident. Their songs have always resided somewhere between head-in-the-clouds lightheartedness and day-dreamy nostalgia, but the ten songs that make up Atlas seem more mature, more deliberate, and lacking some of the carefree naiveté of earlier work. "Past Lives" ruminates on the strange feelings of returning to the neighborhood streets where the narrator spent his youth, while "Crime" relates a relationship in peril to something more harrowing and malicious. The upbeat "Talking Backwards" folds some of the nostalgic melancholia into a gorgeously produced pop song about long-distance communication breakdowns as bright and straightforward as Luna in their prime. The album was recorded in part at Wilco's Chicago studio the Loft, and the production is less hazy and more suited to the band's increasingly clear-headed melodies and expanded sounds, filled out with understated organ and keys from Matt Kallman this time around. Even seemingly buffering tracks like the Mondanile-penned instrumental "April's Song" (more in line with his solo compositions for Ducktails) and the Yo La Tengo/Galaxie 500-modeled "How Might I Live," sung by bassist Bleeker, seem to have a considered place in the album's flow. The songs float by quickly, not giving all of their secrets away at first listen. As Real Estate continue to grow into their own vision of pop, they take their place in a history of classic American indie bands, falling naturally in line behind the groups that influenced them as they add to the conversation with each subsequent album.