Real Estate’s sound has remained fairly consistent over the years, with all of the band’s albums characterized by bittersweet pop-rock tunes slathered in shimmering guitar jangle. That being said, last year’s Atlas displayed a subtle sense of evolution, as the group stripped away the reverb-slathered haze of its prior work in favour of a crisper, country-flecked sound.
Many Moons, the solo debut from frontman Martin Courtney, continues this evolution. Without Real Estate guitarist Matt Mondanile’s signature swaths of arpeggios, the arrangements here emphasize bright acoustic strums and place Courtney’s soft-spoken vocals in the forefront. Although his compositional style hasn’t changed much, the we can now hear his lyrics and hooks with added clarity, meaning that Many Moons is all about songwriting in the classic, meat-and-potatoes sense of the term.
Without the dreamy soundscapes to tie all of the songs together, there’s more disparity in the quality of these 10 tracks than we typically hear on a Real Estate album. Many Moons begins with a forgettable run of songs that established the countrified tone of the LP but fail to do much else, and Mondanile’s absence is conspicuously felt in the strummy plod of “Awake” and “Before We Begin.”
A few of these track feature warm orchestrations, and the poignant flute leads and string-like pads of the instrumental title track make it a dead ringer of ‘90s Belle and Sebastian. This pretty, pleasantly lightweight tune proves to be a turning point for the record, as the back half features some of Courtney’s best songs to date. “Asleep” is a toe-tapping tribute to snoozing, with back-masking effects that recall the Beatles’ similarly themed “I’m Only Sleeping,” while the easy-going “Little Blue” features a swaggering bass groove and a chilled-out soft rock refrain of “Maybe I’ll listen to some music.”
The record finishes with its best tune, the dairy-entry-style ditty “Airport Bar.” A wistful tune about day-drinking while waiting for a flight and missing home, it’s a touching glimpse into Courtney’s psyche. Over top of background arpeggios that faintly resemble just about any Real Estate track, the singer sounds clear-eyed as he concedes, “Wondering where you are from an airport bar / Is a useless exercise, but what’s time wasted?” It’s a beautiful, heartfelt song that sounds all the better for its sonic directness.
For Courtney to step out from the behind the gauze of Real Estate’s arrangements is a high-risk/high-reward endeavour. The moments when he gets it right on Many Moons are among the highlights of his career.
Review by Alex Hudson