Let’s face it, of all the sun-drenched pop bands we were geeking out about in 2009, Real Estate was the best. The band’s sound may have been as echoed and treble-driven as its comrades in sunscreen, but that eponymous debut was a statement, an album of nuance and subtle shifts in tone. If the band felt at first like a bunch of laid-back beach bums, their chops quickly convinced you they were something to take more seriously. Not part of a fading trend, but closer to part of the great New Jersey rock band tradition.
The group’s new album, Days, nearly captures that same lightning in a bottle. It’s got more clouds than its predecessor, and pushes the band’s sound into some fine new spaces. It’s also, however, the kind of album that both shows us where the band is going and what it has outgrown. The best parts of Days expand on the worry that floated around Real Estate, and manage to convey reticence and malaise without dragging the music itself down into that boredom.
This is no easy feat, but the dull shimmer of “Green Aisles” toes that line perfectly. The circular guitar lines twist themselves around the song, mimicking the Mobius strip of highway Martin Courtney pines over. Here he turns on that laid-back feel in search of something more. “All those wasted miles, all those endless drives/our careless lifestyle, it was not so unwise,” he sings, both thanking his past wanderlust and trying to leave it behind. The drifting lilt of the song backs up his fatigue, but the keys and guitars swell up and fill space as it goes, so that the song takes on weight by degrees so you, too, feel sweetly exhausted by the journey once the song ends.
“Three Blocks,” another slow-roller, sits in that same space between the past and the near-future. The drums shuffle, the guitars prick faintly at the airy keys, and Courtney sits at his front door looking over the “dirty sidewalks,” knowing that as he heads up those three blocks “things won’t be like they were before.” We don’t know exactly why, but we know this feeling. Something has ended — perhaps the “endless summer” he mentions — and it’s hard to move on. This ability to capture these small moments of change, the overcast in-between, is what distinguishes Real Estate, and when the players hit those notes right on Days they shine.
Closer “All the Same” expands their sound to a seven-minute guitar jam, and it’s the perfect close to the record. Guitars still echo and glisten the way they do with Real Estate, but here, as the song goes on, the band seems more insistent than drifting. The group digs its heels in and lets the guitars spin their webs. It’s a testament to the power of the band’s sound, to what happens when you take sweet summer tones and give them a subtle, rumbling low-end (Alex Bleecker’s bass is excellent all over here, as is his singing on “Wonder Years”).
There are places here where it feels like Real Estate holds back, though. The highlights above — and their countrified turn on “Municipalities” — tell us how the band has grown, where it is going, so we see that not only have the emotions in these songs grown, but the band has grown as well. “It’s Real,” however, with its more straight-ahead surf-rock vibe, feels a bit thin compared to these other, more textured songs. “Out of Tune” may fit the murky feel of Days, but it’s also a bit too controlled, too reigned in to resonate as much as, say, the thick bed of guitars on opener “Easy.”
Overall, though, Days is a great sophomore album and solid evidence that Real Estate is growing and ready to settle in for the long haul. Days is full of swaying, distant-sounding songs, but as a whole it has a surprisingly immediate impact. It may drift out to sea in places, but there’s always one foot firmly on land, thumping away, keeping time, waiting for what comes next.