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Real Estate - In Mind (Album Review)

Thursday, 23 March 2017 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

Photo: Shawn Brackbill

It feels as though there’s a new hot take proclaiming that innovation in music is dead every other week at the moment. As contentious as that premise is, though, there’s certainly been a rise in the number of artists using modern technology to look back rather than forward.

Judging by the work of neo-soul revivalist Thundercat, hip hop youngster Joey Bada$$ and pretty much every synthwave act going, the flavour of the month is probably the same as the dominant flavours of the decade artists were born in. Sure enough, the members of New Jersey’s Real Estate were born in the ‘80s and their sound owes a lot to R.E.M., the Smiths and other jangly bands from that period.

But what makes them stand out is how natural this evocation is. There’s no elaborate production trick to it; they just write catchy indie tunes that could quite easily belong to that era.

Even though ‘In Mind’ is their first without guitarist Matt Mondanile, its building blocks are largely the same as on previous Real Estate albums. They’ve been labeled ‘pleasant’ so often it seems like an insult, but there’s something genuinely comforting about the way each track revolves around interwoven guitar phrases and an understated bassline.  

And though Martin Courtney’s vocals seem unassuming at first – on track two he wryly points out that he “only sings to serve the song” – he always injects enough melodic range to make an individual part stand out. The lullaby-esque After the Moon is the best example of this trait. It plods along with the same syncopated rhythm for nearly five minutes, and yet it progresses hypnotically, with subtle vocal harmonies dipping in and out. Elsewhere, Stained Glass demonstrates the band’s ability to captivate by locking in one simple but effective groove.

If there’s one criticism you could make of this approach, it’s that it makes for an obvious lack of tonal variety. Real Estate songs are always nostalgic, sentimental and faintly melancholic. There are no radical departures because why would there need to be? But that doesn’t mean they’ve remained entirely static. There are deft flourishes all over this record that show just how far their songwriting has come. Opener Darling, for example, manages to be the catchiest track here despite its main theme being based around an alternating time signature.

Then there’s the striking Two Arrows, which begins with a typically wistful riff and slowly evolves into the darkest thing they’ve ever written. The key is dynamics as an ominous organ wrestles for dominance with an eerie arpeggiated refrain that repeats for half the track and then cuts itself off for no obvious reason.

Whether such a deviation fits the mood of the album is debatable, but it’s evidence they have more in their locker than people give them credit for. For while Real Estate are settled and confident in their sound, they like to gently remind listeners that nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems. This is most apparent in Courtney’s lyrics, which are laced with words of self-doubt and reflection. On Same Sun he asks: “When does one thing ever end, and the next begin?” During Holding Pattern he laments going “around in circles”.

It’d be unfair to suggest Real Estate still are going around in circles. Although their style is now well and truly solidified, they’re much sharper songwriters than when they released their self-titled debut eight years ago. And yet ‘In Mind’ is an album that’s unlikely to impress those who already think them one-dimensional. Fans, though, will recognise it isn’t retro for retro’s sake but rather an updated summary of how far the band have taken a sound that’s as addictive as it is limited in scope.

Real Estate Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue June 13 2017 - LONDON Roundhouse
Tue June 27 2017 - CAMBRIDGE  Junction
Wed June 28 2017 - MANCHESTER O2 Ritz

Click here to compare & buy Real Estate Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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