October 24, 2011

Test Spins: Real Estate, Days

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A couple of months ago, the music website Stereogum released a tribute album to The Strokes’ Is This It. With a wide assortment of artists to cover each of the eleven songs, undoubtedly the best track on the album was covered by the New Jersey band Real Estate. Calming the original anxious urgency of Julian Casablancas in “Barely Legal,” Real Estate used their knack of creating beach pop songs to transform “Barely Legal” into a pleasant memory of the first time you heard the song ten years ago. With their sophomore album Days, the quartet continues to use its talent to create a much more mature and confident album that, despite its laid back aesthetic, is a bold move for the band.

Real Estate not only leaves you with a breezy impression from their songs, but makes it seem like the songwriting itself was effortless. “Easy” (titled such just in case you didn’t get it) starts off the album easy with a hook that sounds familiar from an unfamiliar source. Followed by “Green Aisles,” the transition between the two songs is effortless, as if it was by coincidence. Of course, this was a deliberate product of the band’s ability to layer and loop guitar melodies to create a consistent sound. Because the album has such clean production, not a note feels out of place or unneeded. This makes the album fit tightly together — each song is compartmentalized and can be played on its own, but when put together the lineup creates an idyllic nostalgic experience.

But beyond the feel-good quality of the music, the lyrics continuously entice the listener into a hazy Polaroid-worthy summer dream. In “Easy,” frontman Martin Courtney sings of “Dreams we saw with eyes opened/ until that dream was done.” In “Green Aisles,” one of the most beautiful songs on the album, an emotionally charged Courtney remembers fond memories of a summer long past: “All those wasted miles / All those aimless drives / Through green aisles / Our careless lifestyle / It was not so unwise.” On “It’s Real” we have a confident Courtney who wants us to believe the dream is real: “When I tell you / How I feel / Believe me when I say / It’s real.”

The apparent ease with which the band writes songs appears in “Kinder Blumen,” an instrumental song that loops over and over. Though that may sound like a snoozefest, like their eponymous debut’s “Atlantic City,” the song serves as an intermission from Real Estate to give listeners a chance to remember their own memories. It’s good enough that you wouldn’t realize four minutes had passed by the time the song ends. Bright guitars, a rolling bass line, and a chugging tempo create not so much a song as an experience of the waves on the beach rolling back and forth.

The production of the album is excellent compared to their debut. The guitars are brighter and clearer, the vocals are cleaner, but despite this sharpening of their sound they are able to maintain their mellow aesthetic. Realizing that they don’t need the reverbs from their debut, they have matured by moving away from the typical tricks that many other artists have used to create similar aesthetics. Instruments are carefully layered upon one another so you can hear their distinct parts in “Three Blocks” and “Municipality,” instead of melding together like their debut’s “Suburban Dogs.” The better production undoubtedly led the band to adopt a poppier sound. With its catchy hook, upbeat tempo and bright guitars, “It’s Real” offers some quick but welcome energy from the other mellow tracks.

“It’s Real” is a welcome addition because at times the mellowness of the album can begin to sound tedious and without direction. The carelessness of chilled-out beach pop can dangerously veer off into emotionless and lazy songwriting. One of the weakest tracks, “Wonder Years,” lacks the creativeness and energy of the other tracks, using emotionally bland lyrics: “But I’m not yours / And you’re not mine / No I’m not OK / But I guess I’m doing fine.” It creates a rare break in Courtney’s lyrics, which up until then continued to entice the listener into an idyllic state. Still, in a sea of generic summer records, Days stands out among the crowd for its fresh take on an oversaturated genre. There’s no overuse of reverbs here, nor wishes that your cat could talk: instead there are bright guitars and expertly crafted songs. The looping guitars make the songs repetitive, but that seems to be the entire point. The hypnotic quality of the songs soothes even the most impatient listener into complacency with Courtney’s lyrics, whose references of summers past convince to keep you listening.

On the album’s last track, “All the Same,” the band shows that they know they are repetitive: “Oh what a shame / It’s OK, that’s all the same.” Referencing the same repetitiveness, he sings, “Oh I know it’s hard / but you stay with me / you’ve got a memory” over and over as he fades away and the instrumentals slow, until the last guitar chord softens to silence. The song was a ruse; they tricked you into a lull and now they’ve left you there on your own in a hazy, nostalgic recollection of your memories.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng