For a group that banks on inoffensive alternative rock, Real Estate is often as nondescript as their band name. Although the results are at times predictable, Real Estate proves on “Atlas” they’re more than just background music.
Real Estate has a unique ability to craft memorable pop songs even when the individual constituents are nothing spectacular. Guitarists have been borrowing Johnny Marr’s progressions and riffs for ages. But there’s something about vocalist Martin Courtney IV’s polite vocal delivery. The warm, vintage-sounding drums and the inviting guitar melodies make Real Estate sound familiar but still refreshing. “Atlas” is not a far cry from 2011’s “Days,” and it doesn’t need to be. While other bands shoehorn other genres like electronic into their music, Real Estate is an ostensibly guitar-based band who have found a formula that works.
However, that “Atlas” is neither challenging nor cerebral devalues it after multiple listens. The songs are so inoffensive and mild that you’re left begging for some change — a distorted guitar, a key change, some dissonance — any sort of shake-up. Real Estate is kind of the Ned Flanders of indie rock — a band so family-friendly it starts to drive you crazy. “Had to Hear,” the first track of “Atlas,” shows promise when Real Estate’s most distinct feature, Courtney’s limited but endearing vocal range, expands. For once, he stretches out of his comfort zone and belts more, until hiding behind the other instruments for the rest of the album. On the other hand, Courtney effortlessly writes catchy songs. Even when certain chord changes get overused, the memorable melodies are what resonate most.
Lyrically, Courtney is at his best and most relatable. “Atlas” eschews previous themes and visuals of bliss for heavier emotional content. In all of its up-tempo swing and twangy guitar interplay, the first single, “Talking Backwards,” finds Courtney more distant and introspective than usual, singing “the only thing that really matters is the one thing I can’t seem to do.” Moments like these save “Atlas” from becoming too contained and calculated when Courtney finally has something to say.
Real Estate may have kept things safe, but “Atlas” is an album just as enjoyable for a focused listen as it is for ambiance. “Atlas” is certainly no game changer, but it’s no step in the wrong direction either.
Favorite track: “Talking Backwards”