New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Review: Real Estate perfects simplicity with its new record ‘Daniel’

Frontman Martin Courtney pushes the band to hold back its sound on “Daniel,” and it goes too far.
Samantha Esmé Williams
Real Estate’s most recent album, “Daniel.” (Illustration by Samantha Esmé Williams)

It’s easy to take a band like Real Estate for granted. Fifteen years from its titular debut, the band is still churning out dependable indie pop records every couple of years. Each new Real Estate record brings along a pleasant sense of familiarity, like picking things back up with an old friend.

Some might characterize Real Estate as sleepy or unambitious, but it sticks to what the band knows best, and in the process, it has never released a bad record. Real Estate seems to have decided its sound long ago, and have not pushed itself too far from that initial mark. With its latest album, “Daniel,” Real Estate doubles down and tightens up even further, but it won’t satisfy fans who are getting a little bored with the band’s unwaveringly consistent approach.

Working with producer Daniel Tashian — known for his Grammy-winning work with Kacey Musgraves — and recording for the first time in Nashville, the band presents songs with slow, oozing melodies that are as smooth as honey.

Lead singer and primary songwriter Martin Courtney seems to find a kind of creative liberation in the unabashed simplicity of that aesthetic. Simple, confessional lyrics rely heavily on neat rhymes like “new,” “do,” and “you” to tie it all together.

Recording in Nashville proves its influence on the songs of “Daniel.” Aside from the inclusion of a pedal steel — which fills out the sound and provides some much needed depth to the minimalist instrumentation — the well-honed 9-to-5 work ethic of the city’s country scene leaves its mark. Clocking in at 11 songs in just under 40 minutes, “Daniel” is a disciplined attempt at the tightest craftsmanship that Real Estate can muster.

Courtney has said that his songwriting on this record was largely influenced by his recent solo work. For Real Estate, this is certainly a less band-forward sound. On the opening duo “Somebody New” and “Haunted World,” shimmery, sliding instrumentation hovers just in the background, leaving space for Courtney’s perfectly neat choruses to come through. While the effect is satisfying, catchy and undoubtedly pleasant to listen to, these songs might have stripped the sound back a little too far.

On subsequent tracks like “Water Underground,” however, the simplicity feels much more deliberate. Courtney has the ability to craft relatively plain and simple lyrics in a way that doesn’t feel generic. Singing “Take a look around / I come from a town not too far from here / There is a sound / Never figured out how to make it clear” over a thumping bass line and a steady drumbeat, the track is a dazzling piece of perfect pop. Likewise, standout track “Flowers” is another short and sweet piece of admirably strong construction. Gorgeous pedal steel slides back up Courtney as he muses about life in upstate New York. Little touches, like an angular backup guitar solo, are what helps tracks like these take on their own distinct identity.

“Victoria,” the one track sung by bassist Alex Bleeker, takes the record to its most country-ish point, and it stands out as a more memorable track than the rest. It’s in part because of his mellow drawl delivery, but more so because it makes a more deliberate sonic choice. “Market Street,” although not sung by Bleeker, has an unexpected distorted guitar that upsets the status quo at a point when the middle of the record really starts to blend together.

Tashian’s production is fantastic, and technically, the actual sound of the album itself is absolutely gorgeous. However, the continued insistence on flattening the energy across the board does not do these songs justice. While still a worthwhile listen, the record is, at its best moments, an example of skilled pop songwriting. At its worst, it’s fairly unmemorable moments that are quickly forgotten. Moments on this record feel justifiably simple because they are the purest expression of a lyrical or musical idea, but other times, they just are simple.

Contact Holden Lay at [email protected].

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