On the cover of Real Estate's second album, Days, a row of white houses extends seemingly into infinity, all identical and pressed close together like teeth. The yards are bare dirt rather than green grass, suggesting that this is no sentimentalized depiction of its suburban setting. Nor is it strictly satirical or cynical. Instead, the photograph represents the suburbs abstracted into their most basic elements: a uniformity of geometric planes and empty space. It appears as a half-remembered idea of a place, before the brain can fill in the details.
This is Real Estate's milieu: not the suburbs as they exist, but as we recall them. The band hails from Bergen County, New Jersey, which sprawls northwest of New York City. The album cover photograph — which is dated 1966 but could have been taken at any time during the last four decades — "is by an artist that we have a lot of respect for, named Dan Graham," says Alex Bleeker, who plays bass. "He's from the same place that we're from, so his pictures really resonate with us. Our album covers loosely have to do with a type of home or municipality, usually done by experimental fine artists."
The suburbs have long played a crucial role in pop culture, yet Real Estate's attitude is notably different from that of many musicians. They're not railing against deadening conformity, as so many punk and metal bands have done, nor are they exploding the suburbs into some enormous epic, the way the Arcade Fire did on their 2010 album The Suburbs. In fact, Real Estate's idea of the suburbs — and the bittersweet remove implied by the word "nostalgia" — may be more literary, owing a debt to Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides or Rick Moody's The Ice Storm. "We're not actively identifying ourselves as a suburban band," Bleeker clarifies. "That's just reality. That's who we are. We're from the suburbs, and I think we do have an unusual nostalgia for where we come from."
That sense of nostalgia extends well beyond their subject matter and into their music, which is defined by Martin Courtney's whispery vocals, Matt Mondanile's crisply melodic guitar lines, a laid-back rhythm section, and soft-focus production. If indie acts like Best Coast and Wavves make beach music, then Real Estate soundtrack the long drive home, with salt-dry skin and a resignation about reentering the real world. Days also nods to a certain era of mellow college rock from the late 1980s and early 1990s — to groups like the Ocean Blue and Connells, for example — but more specifically, they recall the subdued percolation of fellow Garden State groups like Yo La Tengo and the Feelies.
"I think we feel a certain obligation to represent New Jersey because it has such a bad reputation internationally," Bleeker says. "Everybody makes fun of New Jersey, but we want to defend it from the Jersey Shore impression that the rest of the world has. It has the highest population density per square mile of any state in the union, and I think that's really interesting. It's difficult to pin down any one trait or pigeonhole a New Jersey sound."
Ironically, the success of Real Estate means that the band members no longer spend much time in their home state. Since the release of their eponymous debut in 2009, they've been on the road almost nonstop, opening for acts like Girls, Deerhunter, and Woods (who released Real Estate's first album on their Woodsist label) before finally headlining their own tours. Perhaps their "unusual nostalgia for where we come from" is rooted in their rock-and-roll transience. "I used to love touring more than anything else in the world," Bleeker says, "and now I've done it so much that it's become normal. The last thing you want is for any of this to become some burden, which could destroy the fabric of a band quickly when you're living in a van together all the time. So you have to be careful about what you do and where you go. I think we're learning that as we go."
With more touring and an EP planned for early 2012, Real Estate are expanding their sound as well as their lineup, thanks to the addition of two new members: a drummer and a keyboard player.
"The songs on Days were written before these guys were with us," Bleeker says. "Now we're developing new material with the new band members, so that is definitely informing the new direction." However, he stresses that Real Estate's wistful sound won't change too dramatically for a while: "We're the same people that we were two years ago. I think bands feel a lot of pressure to radically change on every record, which is cool if it's organic and real. But it's weird that it's more common to change yourself radically than to keep going on the path you've set out for yourself."
With Big Trouble and D-Y
10 p.m., $10