In Defense of Boring Music

Real Estate’s brand of nostalgia is exceedingly accessible, unpretentious and always enjoyable

March 6, 2020 6:00 am
Real Estate play unoffensive, jangly guitar pop — and it's perfect the way it is.
Real Estate play unoffensive, jangly guitar pop — and it's perfect the way it is.
Jake Michaels

Sweaty glasses of sweet tea bookended my Killearn Acres suburban upbringing in Tallahassee. If I retreated to my family’s kitchen, it was a frosty Fresca can. Between the canopy oak trees and St. Augustine turf carpets, a blissfully bland existence sprawled, one we could explore with bare feet. Around the time I graduated to adding shoes then idling in parking lots and slamming spiced rum in fields, I got my first job at the local franchise of an unspectacular fast-casual, white-people-Mexican-food chain. The food was edible and the money felt momentous at the time. Whatever long-haired boy was making me mix CDs at the time would often meet me after my shift to playfully argue Wowee Zowee vs. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain or stargaze from a roof, snacking on corn chips and watery salsa from work.

After college, I traversed up and down the East Coast. I peered into a small slice of differing philosophies, people who walked around their homes with shoes laced up. August 2011 found me fresh off a coveted (albeit unpaid) internship in music journalism, but more jobless than ever. I arrived with an emotionally abusive college boyfriend and the craven best friend he insisted on bringing along.

Through the internship, I inherited a lot of the promo albums, including Real Estate’s 2009 self-titled debut. I refused any type of portable digital-media device, insisting even a CD was a superior format. Music forever filled the space under our lofted, makeshift bedrooms with music from my dad’s hand-me-down speakers. I taped up show posters, cruised message boards for service gigs, and zoned out staring through our enormous window at the stylish young people roaming Morgan Avenue, desperately jealous everyone had a purpose, joy, and I had just followed a man who didn’t love me to a city I didn’t love — a city that most certainly returned that same indifference towards me. 

Real Estate’s unoffensive, jangly guitar pop didn’t quite hook its claws in until a friend visiting dropped the band’s 2011 sophomore album, Days, on my turntable a few months after we settled into our overpriced Bushwick one-bedroom. Martin Courtney’s voice was hazy like the Florida humidity that raised me: a refreshing, routine jolt of frosty Fresca while I clawed around to find my place, any place. Coalescing as a band in the affluent bedroom village of Ridgewood, New Jersey — a quiet town where young New York City couples relocate when they want to start a family or have a backyard — Real Estate made an art out of romanticizing the suburbs, even after relocating to Brooklyn. In that sense, Ridgewood symbolizes the broader picture of middle- to upper-middle-class ‘burbs. Real Estate celebrates only the comforts (manicured lawns, bicycling past your crush’s house, the glorious monotony of long, lazy summer days), glossing over the pitfalls (car dependency, soul-sucking commutes, strip malls). Though each song and album’s specific themes vary on a minor scale, Real Estate’s consistent product is a lowest-common-denominator enjoyability, inoffensive indie rock that works in most scenarios and for most listeners. It’s that gauzy, golden sieve through which they filter these feelings; they follow the No. 1 rule of nostalgia: forget all the bad stuff … but with modestly jammy guitars.

New Yorkers delight in their ability to survive and thrive in their difficult city. I struggled to keep up with the frantic pace and — without a consistently available, local support structure — felt absolutely cooked in loneliness. I found solace in jumping the L to Union Square, corkscrewing until I’d arrive at a location of the chain Tex-Mex restaurant. Buying a burrito was extravagant considering my shaky employment, yet somehow felt important. I still had faded scars from missteps frying chips during my teenage tenure. The familiarity was a balm on my confused, cracking interior; a reliable escape from my brain’s ceaseless swirl. An old sweater that smells like someone you love, thoughtful mix CDs, going to bed early when you need it. It was boring, but necessary.

I often joke that liking Real Estate is like liking sandwiches. I guess it could also be like liking watery salsa or Fresca, too. It isn’t a bold choice, but that doesn’t diminish the value possible when you suspend bitterness and enjoy warm simplicity. Humans turn to art for two major reasons: enhancement or escape. Sure, the audio warmth the outfit provides through reliable releases can add some understated pizazz in a weekday potluck, but where Real Estate especially exceeds is in recording safe escapism. Its sandwich rock props a sturdy ladder to the window of an unsettled soul, an appealing egress to regress — if only for just under an hour.

The Main Thing, the boys’ third full-length since Days, is more of the same. I don’t say that out of meanness, or even the acridity the boy I was with when I fell in love with Real Estate who never made me a mix CD. I say Real Estate is boring — and their latest album that follows that same suburban celebration blueprint — as a compliment.

Boring is good; it’s uncomplicated comfort. And Real Estate’s brand of boring nostalgia is exceedingly accessible and unpretentious in its universal palatability. Whether you grew up in Ridgewood, Killearn Acres, an apartment over a bustling, beachside burger shop, or a remote cabin an hour outside of Asheville, returning to commonplace comforts established at a younger age has the power to melt neck knots. Because Real Estate keeps making what is essentially the same record, the band’s music ends up following the path of their consistent suburban muse: an uncanny ouroboros with a white-picket-fence spine. It isn’t flashy, but it feels good. Uncomplicated comfort like a pair of pilly sweatpants, secondhand speakers, sprawling on a rooftop to admire a foreign skyline. It’s the trusty ease you can rely on, not if — but when — you need it.

Real Estate’s fourth effort checks all the boxes the band groomed us to expect from them. Convenient nostalgia, velvety guitar, melodies as light and easy as a tufted purple cloud lazily drifting past The Chrysler Building. Fans don’t love Real Estate because they have an appetite for edgy, fans love Real Estate because they know exactly what they’re getting into — and in a world that’s constantly shifting, the boring option starts to look pretty good.

Somewhere between Days and Atlas (2014), I finally came-to about the horrible boyfriend and left, resettled in Greenpoint, then eventually moved to lay roots in Atlanta. Although I was back in the American South and its nightly cricket symphony, I learned the challenges of uncertainty and discomfort don’t begin and end with physical location. On this balance beam tipping over/ Time turns tirelessly but not fast enough. 

The markers of success can’t absolve any one person from doubt, fear, sadness. It often takes time to develop a connection to sources of comfort; when we’re lucky, it’s immediately apparent from the first of 9,000 reverb-y noodles. I continue to turn to familiar tokens to reset. For me, that was and continues to be the Fresca bops I can count on Real Estate to keep churning out. That and because the closest location of the pseudo-Mexican chain is past TSA in Hartsfield.

After all, wasn’t Real Estate living my exact reality? Just some other kids who traded in parking-lot hangs for a more bustling setting. At least until we long for lawns, too.

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