, March 16th, 2017 11:52
The old John Peel adage about The Fall being “always different, always the same” might be fruitfully adapted for New Jersey janglers Real Estate. For here, truly, is a band that is always the same; or perhaps more pertinently: always brilliant, always the same. Expecting them to change on In Mind, their fourth album, is like expecting Werther’s to change the recipe of its Originals or Land Rover to get into ice skates.
I mean, seriously: In Mind is the band’s first record since losing guitar lynchpin Matt Mondanile to his Ducktails project, with Julian Lynch coming in as a replacement. This might entail a fundamental creative shift for other bands, given the importance of Mondanile’s bright, jangly guitar to the Real Estate mix. But no. In Mind’s 11 tracks could pretty much all fit snugly onto 2009’s Real Estate, 2011’s Days or 2014’s Atlas.
There’s something almost avant garde in the band’s unshifting adherence to the same palette, all evocative threaded guitar lines à la R.E.M. or The Byrds, unfussy drum and bass backing and winsomely harmonic vocals, like Mondrian deciding that, yes, grids pretty much did it for him or The National performing ‘Sorrow' for six hours straight at the behest of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Or maybe Real Estate are more like modern-day Kraftwerk, a band who can shed members and go years between releases but always produce music so perfectly, unchangeably, deliciously Kraftwerk-ian that it feels like an electronic comfort blanket.
That’s not to say that In Mind is a carbon copy of previous Real Estate albums. There are the odd quirks and deviations from the blueprint, such as the tricky time signature of ‘Darling’’s central riff, the electric chirp of a drum machine on ‘After The Moon’ or the guitar fuzz and Hammond climax of ‘Two Arrows’, a song that suggests long afternoons wigging out to The Beatles’ ’I Want You (She's So Heavy)’. But all of these advances are deftly subsumed into the pillowy welcome of the Real Estate world.
Somehow, Real Estate manage to pull off this circular career shuffle without ever becoming tiresome. There may be nothing particularly innovative about the band’s music but they operate in a niche whose unfashionable appeal never seems to age. Real Estate sound like R.E.M., Big Star or Teenage Fanclub, all bands with enduring universal appeal. But you simply don’t find many groups who sound like this in 2017 - teenagers, as far as I know, aren’t aping well-worn copies of Bandwagonesque when they get together to make their musical mark. Real Estate’s sound is - and I almost cringe as I write this - determinedly pleasant. It is eminently satisfying to hear their cleanly melodic guitar lines ring out underneath vocal harmonies of wistful appeal, a warm bath of musical enjoyment, more relaxing for me in its familiarity than any of Eno’s ambient masterpieces.
More importantly, perhaps, Real Estate write quite impeccable songs: songs that stick in the mind, songs you will whistle in the shower, songs that sounds effortless, whimsical even, but whose careful structures speak of hours of craft. These are the kind of songs that can mend a broken heart through sheer evocative power, even when the words add up to little more than a hill of nostalgic beans, songs that make an throwaway line like “there’s no place I would rather be right now” (on ‘Stained Glass’) sound like a fundamental emotional truth to be tossed and savoured. And In Mind is home to several of the band’s very best songs, from the gorgeous baroque of ‘Stained Glass’ to the dreamy yawn of ‘Darling’.
But it is ‘Serve The Song’ that perhaps best sums up what Real Estate are all about. “The chorus only interrupts / I sing to serve the song” singer Martin Courtney earnestly warbles, offering up what is almost a manifesto for this politest, most unchangingly introvert of bands. Real Estate are here not to break barriers, change music or bring about a revolution. They are simply here to serve their songs. And what songs they are.
Does this matter? Can bands get away with such guilt-free pleasures in an age as rotten as 2017? Is there any need for such musical fixidity in the age of techno, grime, R&B and shocking technological change? Does the idea of songwriting craft make you want to man the barricades?
It depends what you want from a band. There’s no envelope pushing here, no extravagant musical fusions, no narrative edge and no significant development on Real Estate’s previous releases. There will, almost certainly, be no Damascene conversions around I In Mind.
Rather, Real Estate are the glorious, self-serving epitome of “if you like this kind of thing”, a band who take being good at what they do to wonderful new heights, and are all the better for it. If you’re into self-flagellation you could call it s guilty pleasure. But, really, why bother? Rarely have a band so perfectly captured the nonchalant thrill of being beautifully stuck in their groove.