At their best, Real Estate have an ability to sound completely inoffensive. Normally, this would be a label applied to bands that give no effort, but in this case it’s to describe a group that simply sounds effortless.
Atlas is a welcome refinement to the formula the quintet exercised in 2011’s Days. With production values sharpened and much of the fuzziness rolled off and polished away, Real Estate benefit immensely from a cleaner sound. Borrowing elements in equal part from Wilco and Band Of Horses, Atlas might casually be referred to as an introduction to indie rock—but only also as an example of how good that umbrella genre can be. In a musical landscape that is swiftly moving away from the “guitar band”, Real Estate have drawn a line in the sand with carefully-arranged six-string segments and honeyed vocals.
Single “Talking Backwards” perfectly encapsulates everything there is to love about Atlas: it’s a pop song cleverly wrapped in neo-psych and country references that speaks both to the incidental listener as well as the long-time fan. A small army of guitar parts weave in and out of each other underneath Martin Courtney’s syrup-soaked lyrics, and as the third song on the album, it takes about that long to remember why Atlas is so refreshing. Not since Transatlanticism has a singer been so concerned with his own clarity, but the real treat is getting to hear mellow, chiming guitar work at the forefront of a record’s toy box.
As well as borrowing from indie rock’s now not-insubstantial history, Real Estate make great sense alongside their contemporaries. Tours supporting Girls, Kurt Vile, and Deerhunter have all left their marks on Atlas, notably in opener “Had To Hear” and Courtney’s vocal delivery, both of which share in the hazy warmth of Vile’s “Peeping Tomboy”. Altogether, Atlas is a little less surf-inspired than Real Estate’s sophomore effort, and with the emphasis shifted from reverb-drenched singing to tight musicianship and carefully-arranged songs that flex their ideas on space and distance, the band sounds better for the change.
Atlas is no game-changer: Real Estate have cemented themselves firmly as an exceptional guitar-based soft-spoken rock band, taking cues both from the early oughts and modern pop. Their third LP is a warm record for lazy afternoons, a sunbeam-slicked ode to subdued travels and the smell of grass in summer. Atlas may sound “effortless”, but it is important because that sense of comfort is still carried on a wind of change.