New Jersey dream-pop quintet Real Estate (not to be confused with their Sunnier, Diurnal counterparts) have quietly but confidently claimed their patch at the centre of the ambient pop movement. Following on from their two previous (and critically acclaimed) albums, Atlas feels like a natural, if not too radical, progression, even if it stays well within the same territory.
Perhaps it’s simply a by-product of the unassuming nature of their clean, reverberating guitars and multi-layered vocals, but listening to the album in full, the songs don’t seem to fade into each other as much as drift seamlessly from one to the next. However, after a few listens the changes in pace and melody (if not texture) become more apparent. Opener ‘Had to Hear’ keeps things stately and sedate, with its chord flourishes and jangling opening riffs, while ‘Past Lives’ leans more onto the soul side in its prominent bass riffs, overlaid with shimmering 60s guitars and Martin Courtney’s choir-like vocals. ‘Talking Backwards’ picks up the pace considerably, stripping away the ambient textures to leave behind a sparkling guitar pop song, pulled along nicely by Etienne Pierre Duguay’s sharp turn on the drum kit. “Then I might as well be talking backwards. Am I making any sense to you? The only thing that really matters is the one thing I can’t seem to do” Courtney sings in the chorus, the simple clarity of his lyrics contrasting nicely with the supposed inability to communicate that frustrates him.
From there, the album continues in much the same vein, incorporating jazz and funk elements into a sound that continues to be executed perfectly, even if it doesn’t stray too far from the template already laid out. ‘The Bend’ progresses nicely from its swinging acoustic opening into fully-fledged, pseudo-lounge music, complete with casual bossa beats and guitar slides a-plenty. It’s easy to hear traces of guitarist Matt Mondanile’s more dance-oriented work as Ducktails in the fluid, mesmerizing fretwork he puts on display across the album, on tracks like ‘Primitive’ and ‘Crime’, as well as this one. It’s beautiful stuff, and is one of the things that really catch the ear amongst the gentle layers of rhythms and chords that surround it.
As the album draws to a close, ‘Horizon’ takes things in a rockier direction with its mildly distorted opening riffs and Duguay throwing together a sharp, rhythmic beat that makes this feel like one of the album’s most energetic tracks. Closer ‘Navigator’ pulls them back to the sedate, relaxing ambiance that marked the album’s beginning, its picked chords and lightly crashing cymbals lulling you back into one of those enjoyable, dream-pop-induced comas.
Atlas may not be the most original or diverse album that Real Estate could have put together on their third outing. What it does do, however, is symbolize their setting down roots at the heart of their chosen genre. With the likes of The Shins currently nowhere to be seen, there’s a slot to be filled in the dream-pop arena, and Real Estate are making a pretty good case for their inclusion. It may not be breaking new ground, but Atlas marks out its territory, and firmly plants its flag.
Atlas is out now via Domino Records.