Just What I Heard: Real Estate’s ‘Atlas’

Just What I Heard: A regular column from Staff Writer Quinn Donnell

Martin Courtney, Matt Mondanile, and Alex Bleeker have been making music together since they met as kids in Ridgewood, New Jersey more than a decade ago. Upon listening to their first two albums as Real Estate, this suburban experience becomes an obvious influence on their music; nostalgic lyricism and simple, 70’s-inspired instrumentation are at the forefront of both their self-titled debut and 2011’s Days.

At first glance, their third album, Atlas, is a continuation of the guitar-driven Days. In an age of music when seemingly every other indie act resorts to synthesizers’ accessibility and dance music’s demand, Real Estate stays consistent. Their first single, “Talking Backwards,” comes in at track three as Atlas’ standout jangle-pop tune; its reverbed introduction is met with a subtle bass line and additional layers of intricately placed guitar riffs. Much of the same can be said for Days’ “It’s Real,” which is followed by a slow-grooving instrumental not unlike Atlas’ “April’s Song.” Along with a cut fronted by Bleeker in the latter half of both albums and a conclusion at track 10, Days and Atlas share a very similar structure.

After taking a good look at Atlas, however, as most fans had the opportunity to do on iTunes Radio a week before its official release, it’s clear that this album is the height of everything Real Estate has created up until this point. The release of Atlas confirms the fact that the consistency displayed throughout Real Estate’s five years as a band is undoubtedly the result of incredible self-awareness; Courtney, Mondanile, and Bleeker have always known exactly what kind of album they wanted to make, and the success of Days gave them the opportunity to follow up with a record that exploits every resource they could possibly need.

The most distinctive example of this newfound reserve of opportunity is Atlas’ production. Far removed from the garage-pop lo-fi recordings of their debut, Atlas is the product of Wilco’s Loft studio in Chicago. Produced by Tom Schick, known for his work with Norah Jones and Ryan Adams, and featuring the addition of keyboardist Matt Kallman, Atlas offers the most defined sound in Real Estate’s discography.

The availability of these resources, however, is the consequence of increased pressure and greater obligations. For the first time, Martin Courtney’s lyrics don’t look back to the golden era of suburban beverages and snow days, but toward the future. And it looks to be a particularly intimidating one.

Real Estate tackles some daunting concerns throughout the entirety of Atlas, most of which revolve around life on the road. The title of the album’s initial track, “Had to Hear” desolately refers to the voice of someone back home, and “The Bend” opens with a forlorn assertion:  “Have I not been clear / or do I sound insincere / I’m just trying to make some sense of this / before I lose another year.”

Not only is Atlas Real Estate’s first opportunity to exhibit the culmination of their creative potential, but it’s also the first chance Courtney has had to communicate on his own terms. The lyricism on Atlas may suggest an uncertain future, but in the present, Real Estate are at their peak.

Key Tracks: Had to Hear, Talking Backwards, Crime