Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: Days and the Modest Perfection of Real Estate

Douglas Martin has a bridge in Brooklyn he would like to sell you. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single critically-acclaimed band that has garnered as much cautious praise and backhanded...
By    October 18, 2011

Douglas Martin has a bridge in Brooklyn he would like to sell you.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a single critically-acclaimed band that has garnered as much cautious praise and backhanded compliments as Real Estate.

Due to their floating, easygoing nature, nobody really wants to be the critic who gives the hard sell on the Brooklyn-via-Ridgewood band. Instead, they use descriptors that  normally suggest that the band is boring. Breezy. Restrained. Unassuming. Lackadaisical. The subtitle of their Fader cover story is: “How interesting do you need to be to be good?” If you haven’t gotten the point yet, Real Estate is a band that’s clearly not reinventing the wheel. But what they lack in ingenuity, they more than make up for in fulfilling song craft.

The group’s 2009 self-titled album, in spite of being all of the things previously mentioned, was one of the most immersive listens of that year. It’s a record made to sneak up on you — one where you don’t even realize you like it until you catch yourself whistling the guitar lines of “Fake Blues” and “Atlantic City” or the end coda of “Suburban Beverage.”.Real Estate’s genius lies in the way they can make a song seep almost subconsciously; the way Martin Courtney’s melodies force you to compulsively sing along, even though the only line you can decipher underneath the dust and reverb is, “Budweiser, Sprite, do you feel alright?”

Signing to Domino after selling over 20,000 copies on Woodsist allows for the band to spend a little money on studio recording, the polish helping the band forge a sound better suited for a band of their nature than the tape hiss that flows through the undercurrent of basement recording. But, as you would probably expect from a band like Real Estate, Days is not so much a forward surge as it is a lateral shift. They trade their hazy jam band vibe for one that leans toward transcontinental indie-pop akin to Australians The Go-Betweens or the British groups on Postcard Records, augmented with a paper-thin sheet of woozy psychedelia. Douglas Martin Single of the Year contender “It’s Real” is the closest they come to a brisk pace. Even the album’s running time is barely two minutes longer than that of the self-titled record. Adding to the legion of encouraging sideswipes given to the band, it’s pretty safe to say that Days is not so much an improvement as it is a refinement.

But there is a sea chance abound in the band’s roles and dynamic, as they shift their seats and adjust their positions in their slow ascent to the indie A-list. Although Real Estate is still very much Martin Courtney’s band (out of the group’s three principle members, Real Estate is the only band Courtney writes songs for), the contributions of the other members are starting to crystallize on Days. Bassist (and, in a way, band mascot) Alex Bleeker contributes his first Real Estate song in the form of “Wonder Years,” the exact aural equivalent of the band’s laidback nature that he himself personifies.

Somewhere between the release of Real Estate and that of Days, guitarist Matthew Mondanile went from being the band’s secret weapon to their star, streamlining his exploratory guitar lines from his (decidedly more experimental) solo project Ducktails and offering instantly memorable fretwork for this band. As a guitarist, Mondanile’s work in Real Estate serves as the Prozac-prescribed younger cousin of Stephen Malkmus’ guitar lines for David Berman’s Silver Jews, every bit as intuitive and complimentary to the songs they‘re written for, but cheerier, more concise, more pop-friendly. It’s hard to imagine what “It’s Real” would sound like without that bouncy, endlessly hummable lead, or “Wonder Years” without the jammy solo that is likely to make people wonder when using a wah-wah pedal became uncool.

If there’s anything the heightened value in sound quality has improved in Real Estate, it’s the worth of Courtney’s contributions. Without being shrouded in reverb– sometimes an instrument in itself, sometimes a crutch– he sounds miles more confident as a singer and lyricist. As I mentioned in my single review for last year’s “Out of Tune” (one of the album’s holdovers, along with “Younger than Yesterday” from last year’s Reality EP), Courtney has a knack for capturing abject suburban ennui in the pretty Trojan Horses that are his melodies, despondency flowing through the undercurrent of the scenic views. He’s also very talented in perfectly evoking a seasonal vibe. While Real Estate was commonly associated with summer, listening to the album really captures the slight frost of a sunny winter day; pleasing to look at, but still sort of distant. Days carries an autumnal veneer through and through, with chords and guitar lines often sounding like red and brown leaves slowly falling to the ground.

Though Days houses some of the best songs Real Estate has recorded to date (perfect opener “Easy,” the more-than-once-aforementioned “It’s Real”), no song on this album quite encapsulates what makes them remarkable quite like closer “All the Same”. The keyword-shifting of the verses, the melodic classicism in the chorus, the lock-step movement of the rhythm section, the fact that it’s a seven-and-a-half minute song with a four-and-a-half-minute coda. Mondanile delivers a cyclical guitar line with a psychedelic sense of repetition. Then, for the final sixteen bars, the band gradually slows the song’s pace to something more Real Estate-y, providing the most surprising moment of their catalog yet, but not something so surprising that it doesn’t fit. It’s a song that, like the band itself, thrives on repeat listens and decides to switch lanes when it catches you zoning out.

Real Estate is not an innovative band. They don’t use hair-raising instrumental parlor tricks or hit you with lyrical knockout blows. At their top-dollar best, they’re mildly exciting musically and mildly subversive lyrically. In spite of all of these things, Real Estate is a good band. I’d even venture to say they’re a great band. While they don’t push the pedal to the floor or make sharp left turns, there is something to be said about a band that can get so much mileage out of coasting in cruise control.

Download:
MP3: Real Estate-“It’s Real”

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