The New Jersey band Real Estate’s self titled debut album mines some of the same ground that we can also hear in the work of Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective. It’s too simplistic to call this music “surf-rock revival” or to limit their musical forebears to The Beach Boys, but there are grains of truth in those categorization*. On my first listen to Real Estate, I was again reminded of the influence of the Beach Boys, and fascinated by the different ways that contemporary bands are taking up their music.
Is there any more unlikely band than the Beach Boys upon which to start a revival? Their songs are (almost creepily) naive and innocent, with banal lyrics that would rot your teeth. They had prominent, unselfconscious close harmonies that today sound closer to old-timey barbershop than contemporary music. And the surf culture that they represented has been banished to the corner of Polynesian kitsch and Big Kahuna Burgers.
But their music is back in a big way. I can hear it in the harmonies and song structures of Fleet Foxes. I can hear it in the controlled chaos of Animal Collective’s studio production. And the elements of their music are transformed into the chill grooves of Real Estate.
Real Estate wants you to think you’re listening to relaxing summertime music; tracks on their album include “Pool Swimmers;” “Beach Comber;” and “Atlantic City.” But the vision of summer presented here is a melancholy one. The elements of surf rock are here: acoustic rhythm guitar, slide guitar, minimally processed drums and bass. Where the Beach Boys’ music was transparent and clear, Real Estate is smothered in heavy reverb (an effect I hear everywhere right now). That detachment defines the sound on the record. The drums, bass, and spare rhythm guitar keeps the groove, and the song, going while rhythmic power chords, shimmering steel guitar lines, and muffled harmonies drift in and out. Even in choruses, or one of the many instrumental interludes, the band never raises its voice, maintaining an even restraint.
The whole effect is of listening to ’60’s music through headphones made of molasses. If “Surfin, U.S.A.” moved you to get up an dance, or “California Girls” made you want to cruise around in a car with wood paneling with a check-this-out look on your face, then “Suburban Dogs” might make you want to like down on the sand, look at the sky, and wonder where you’ll be in 10 years.
This band should be evaluated outside of the legacy of another band, of course, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m dismissing them as Beach Boys-derivative or backwards looking. I enjoyed listening to this album. I think it’s also important to acknowledge what they didn’t do with their interpretation of surf rock: they didn’t simply emulate the style of older artists (like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, or any of today’s countless retro cabaret artists) and they didn’t simply mix elements of the older style with the sound du jour (á la Smash Mouth and lounge music). It’s also really important that, while you can hear the sound of the band that influenced them in their music, Real Estate’s music sounds like now, and it could not be mistaken for that of any other decade.
It’s good music. Just don’t bring it to the beach.