In 2011, just after the release of their album Days, Real Estate played the (now defunct) 400 Bar with Big Troubles and a (now defunct) Macalester student band called the Muskies. Tickets were $5 and there were no more than 150 people in attendance. Last night, Real Estate played a sold-out show at the Fine Line Music Cafe. “This is cool,” vocalist Martin Courtney remarked. “There’s a lot of people in here.”
Since the release of their self-titled debut in 2009, Real Estate have steadily gained attention and critical acclaim. Atlas, released earlier this month, continues the streak, with Rolling Stone and Pitchfork both calling it the band’s best release yet. Real Estate have perfected hazy, sunny surf-pop to the point that labeling it “surf-pop” feels (and probably is) reductive. It’s also complex, psychedelic, and distinctively suburban. Still, it’s inextricably tied to the summer.
Real Estate’s style is subtle and effortless, but never feels lacking. Courtney’s lyrics are sparse and sometimes vague, but never come off as superfluous. Guitarist Matt Mondanile’s meandering guitar melodies enrich Courtney’s vocals, but neither element competes with the other; it’s striking how evenly they carry weight.
Over time, the band’s sound has gotten sharper, clearer, and more specific. With songs like “Suburban Beverage,” Real Estate was covered in a heavy fog of reverb. Days saw clearer and more buoyant pop. Atlas is the band’s tidiest and most accessible album, with stronger vocals and percussion than before, and their show at the Fine Line illuminated this progression. (Before the show, the band stopped by the Current’s studios to play a few songs.)
The band opened with “Green Aisles,” a track off Days, followed by the instrumental “Kinder Bumen,” also from Days—both recognizable guitar riffs that most of the crowd recognized instantly. Real Estate’s live renditions of older songs reflected their evolution: vocals were louder, percussion was punchier, and the whole spectacle felt more rock-and-roll.
Some older material, like “Beach Comber” and “Fake Blues,” flourished with the band’s fuller sound and Courtney’s more energetic vocals. But other songs (such as Days’s “Municipality”) lost the sense of gentle rumination that made them so appealing in the first place.
The set included almost all of Atlas—eight out of ten tracks. “April’s Song,” a psychedelic, Beatles-esque jam, came together particularly well live. “Crime,” the single from Atlas, adeptly blends their newer vocal and percussive sharpness with the carefree, fuzzy guitar melodies of their early recordings.
Their sound was fuller, and the band seemed more comfortable jamming and jumping around than they did last time around. They appeared to be genuinely enjoying themselves, and said so at least three separate times throughout the night—they even took it with a sense of humor when that one guy requested “Free Bird” (“Okay,” bassist Alex Bleeker laughed, “we’re finally going to play ‘Free Bird.’”)
Given the variety in the set—with a George Harrison cover (“Behind That Locked Door”), the debut of a never-before-performed song, a few jam sessions, and an admitted change to their planned setlist (followed by a lot of fumbling, improvising, and stage banter while the band tuned and debated what to play)—I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had actually played “Free Bird.” Bleeker acknowledged that the show was, in his words, “loosey goosey.”
Real Estate’s latest album isn’t in the same formula as the albums that brought them to public attention. Like their live show, it was a risk—and one that paid off.
Kyra Herning is a student at Macalester College.