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Real Estate finds tranquility, but breaks little new ground on ‘In Mind’

(Dylan Pech/Flickr)

Toward the conclusion of “In Mind,” the fourth album from New Jersey’s suburban jangle-pop masters Real Estate, Martin Courtney muses “Green river still runs under that same sun/I never saw the source but I know the chorus.”

At once both a reference to the band’s own past and the remarkable stasis of its sound through the years, it’s an admission that’s both surprising—given the dramatic changes the band has undergone since 2014’s anxious suburban hangover, “Atlas”—and obvious, given just how small of an effect these changes seem to have had on Real Estate’s inimitable sound.

Matt Mondanile, whose dreamy, quietly intricate guitar leads for years served as such a natural backdrop to Courtney’s unassumingly beautiful meditations on coming of age and moving into adulthood in the shadow of his suburban youth, quit the band in 2016. Courtney, in the meantime, became a father of two, and relocated to Beacon, New York, while enlisting fellow Jersey native Julian Lynch to fill Mondanile’s shoes.

One would think that if Real Estate—now a permanent five-piece thanks to the addition of keyboardist Matt Kallman—were to ever be knocked out of its perpetual haze, it would be by these fairly significant events. “In Mind” though, finds Courtney clinging almost stubbornly to the surf-rock meets Luna by way of Steely Dan aesthetic the band already perfected on 2011’s “Days,” and distilled for a wider audience on “Atlas.” For so long a tourist gazing curiously at the domestic stability of others, on “In Mind,” (released March 17) Courtney finds himself, strangely, on the other end of the spectrum. With that in mind, his desire to play things as safely as he does on “In Mind” is understandable, but still leads to a record that feels more passive than exploratory.

Lynch, unafraid to bust convention in his work as a solo musician, seems to have asked himself “What would Matt have done?” before crafting most of the album’s leads. From the first minute of opener/lead single “Darling,” he seems content with largely playing the role of Courtney’s foil exactly as his predecessor did, a decision that can be seen as both a blessing and a curse for “In Mind.”

On “Darling,” where Lynch’s playing coils itself beautifully around Courtney’s guitarwork while simultaneously expanding the song’s range, it’s an absolute blessing; a vivid reminder of what a blissful experience it is to hear the group operating in lock-step with one another. At other times though, you may find yourself almost begging Lynch through your chosen listening device to cut loose, as he fails to push spacious, lethargic songs like “After the Moon” and “Holding Pattern” into more adventurous or compelling territory.

On the few occasions on which he does feel obliged to shake up the band’s maddeningly serene picture—the jagged, psychedelic notes that unfurl over the end of the lengthy “Two Arrows” and the liberal use of wah-wah that dots his soloing on “Serve the Song,” for instance—the interjections still sound a little out of place, showing that Lynch perhaps still needs some time to grow within the ensemble and as Courtney’s instrumental sidekick.

Equally out of place is the requisite number from bassist Alex Bleeker, “Diamond Eyes.” Letting his Deadhead flag fly proudly, Bleeker answers the timeless question of what tye-dye would sound like if it could sing. Seemingly trying to blur the line between a Minibus-side campfire and the streets of Washington D.C., Bleeker preaches that “It’s a time to raise our voices loud and not go quietly,” while maintaining that “As this time marches on into this great uncertainty/I have music all around me bringing timeless melody.”

While his imagery of a land “Where the mountain meets the sea/And the lilac grows beyond the scope of forgotten memory” certainly works well enough within the context of “In Mind”s domestic tranquility, Bleeker’s vague evocation of the horrors of the daily news cycle certainly doesn’t.

The album’s settled nature also seems to rob Courtney of the quiet analysis and hooks that used to come so painlessly to him. Though he regains his familiar strut with the rest of the quintet on “Darling,” and the album’s confident closer, “Saturday,” on everything in between Courtney seems almost paralyzed by the prospect of stepping out of his typical, reserved ennui. Even many of the melodies seem intentionally restrained, holding back rather than developing naturally into something that would stand out in an album that seems to bank on stability and predictability.

As Courtney says, “I never saw the source but I know the chorus.” After almost a decade, he knows the Real Estate equation by heart, and can present it with little effort. “In Mind” though, shows that, even if the band can mine the same sound indefinitely, there will soon come a point where a sense of awe at how easily the band can soothe our nerves with such simple suburban-set jangle-pop tunes will be replaced by a sense that we too know the chorus, and that its charms are starting to wear off.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at jlmaxwell@umass.edu and followed on Twitter at @JMaxwell82.

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