An overly cohesive whitewash
Listening to The Main Thing once through feels like being submerged underwater – if you’ve ever sat at the bottom of a swimming pool and listened to what it sounds like down there, it will be easier to imagine the feeling. From the tone of the instruments to the wide-open vocals and the watery production, Real Estate’s fifth studio album is an aqua-pond of mellow indie, and yes, it’s still the same mellow indie we’ve come to expect 11 years down the line.
The band has long established themselves as masters of the suburban soundtrack, the kind of montage stuff you see in movies where the main character inevitably reflects upon their decisions and drives pensively through the countryside or along some Californian coastline (or something slightly less specific). That’s exactly what it is – movie music, and five albums on, Real Estate have pretty much mastered that sound. It’s good in the sense that you know what you’re going to get – long-time fans won’t be disappointed by this record, but by the same breath they won’t necessarily be challenging it either, and with the objective approach of an outsider it’s easier to see what this record lacks.
It’s flat. The first few tracks have their elements and their flair, and they’re mostly agreeable, but the depth that keeps a listener from start to finish just isn’t there. Granted, they have changed things up quite a lot, with a heavier focus placed on intricate rhythms, pushing their drums further than they’ve ever been before (“Paper Cup”), as well as some real upbeat folk through the latter half of the album (“Silent World”), a sensibility in style they could have done with a while ago. But don’t let their guise of change fool you – Real Estate are still chained to their indie-rock sadness and even with the inclusion of some really promising changes, The Main Thing is still too washed out by its overriding static. By the end of it, there’s no differentiation between tracks, only specks in the mud.
However, these changes can’t, and won’t, go unnoticed. Real Estate has really committed to self-indulgence on this record, and it works to their advantage. Maybe some of the best moments off the record are the final instrumental sweeps on “Friday,” “November” and the fully instrumental “Sting” – in fact almost all the tracks have an instrumental flair to some extent and that presence deserves high praise.
By way of intimacy, “Gone” is maybe one of the most considered tracks off the record, pushing both the guitar and voice to their softest edges and making something beautiful out of simplicity, space and repetition. Then you move onto something like “Also A But” and once again, we’re all reminded of Real Estate’s gift, and why it has gotten them this far. Like a sister to “Gone,” the two tracks work in ultimate harmony, soaring subterranean ground with the only solace.
All things considered, maybe the best summation of this record is that it’s unsure of itself. It’s rearing to make a total break from the band’s primary sound, to take a breath of fresh air and in many ways it does, but something is holding it back, and worse, holding it together. Real Estate needs to shake loose their tendency to whitewash an album with one style and start separating the tracks for what they are. Smash holes in them, let them sink and keep the ones that float back up.