New Jersey's premier cinematic time-travellers forge an opulent and wistful future with one eye on the past
It could’ve gone either way for this New Jersey gang. Until recently they’d sat on the cusp of shambling C86 indie and ’90s shoegaze, combining delicate surf-tinged ditties with a fuzzy shimmer. But 2011’s ‘Days’ made a minor splash on the Billboard chart and it might just have given the band – now augmented by Girls keyboard player Matt Kallman – the confidence to stretch out, to relax, to find a third way. ‘Atlas’ doesn’t stray too far from the old template but everything’s better – melodies, production, focus – as Real Estate pinpoint what got them here and identify where they want to go next.
Yet for all its moves forward, Real Estate’s third album has a postmodern hue – it’s full of sepia memories of past dreams of the future. The sleeve sets the scene: a cut-up image of a vast mural by Polish artist Stefan Knapp that was bolted to the side of a derelict department store in singer Martin Courtney’s neighbourhood when he was a kid. He’d gaze at it as he passed in the back of his mum’s car, only remembering it years later as he and the band pieced together this surrender to the past and future. “I cannot come back to this neighbourhood/Without feeling my own age”, he sings on the gliding ‘Past Lives’ over Kallman’s soothing electric piano. It’s filmic – he’s the protagonist of a melancholic indie flick like Garden State or Beautiful Girls, harking back to the old haunts but itching to get away.
‘Had To Hear’ covers similar ground, its winding guitar reaching across the old landscape, painting vistas like the early work of idiosyncratic ’60s producer Joe Meek. ‘Atlas’ dreams of getting away from all this, forging towards a tomorrow of driving cross-country and reliving everything that hasn’t happened yet.
Courtney resists the lure of nostalgia for what was around the corner, though; he’s smart enough to know that you can’t really go back – by the end he’s looking to the horizon. On ‘Primitive’, with its Laurel Canyon harmonies and wavering guitar lines that bear comparison with Hank Marvin’s work with The Shadows, of all things, the emphasis is on possibilities (“And in my mind I can see the street/Where you and I will live”), a sentiment echoed on the sun-bleached country ecstasy of ‘Navigator’. “Cross the kitchen floor/Steal out the back door”, Courtney urges, “Past the monument/I’ll meet you where the pavement ends”.
With all this crossing of time streams, you could become confused about which way we’re facing – forward or back. “Am I making any sense to you?” Courtney asks on ‘Talking Backwards’. Sometimes warm, evocative guitar lines are enough to tell a story. Lead guitarist Matt Mondanile takes the microphone on the Roy Orbison-ish desert-blues of ‘How Might I Live’, but his musical strength enriches the rest of ‘Atlas’: Mondanile never wastes a second, his eloquent riffs, fills and solos saying as much as any of Real Estate’s bittersweet stories. Penny-arcade instrumental ‘April’s Song’ finds him summoning the atmosphere of a rainy pier, while his steely playing on the soft folk-funk of ‘The Bend’ almost veers into a skyscraping Hendrix impression. Etching pictures with his guitar, Mondanile matches Courtney’s poetry, turning ‘Atlas’ into a gauzy, Super-8 movie soundtrack, heading somewhere between Galaxie 500 and The Jesus And Mary Chain, with Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb along for the ride. Whatever the past has made them, Real Estate can look ahead now, slip over that horizon and make their own memories.