Martin Courtney is rarely in a hurry to get anywhere. The bespectacled frontman of Real Estate floats through songs like a leaf on the autumn breeze, using the space between intro and coda to pour himself a cup of tea, spread his thoughts out on the table, and indulge his fingers’ inclinations as they slide across the fretboard. It’s not in his wheelhouse to grab you by the collar and pull you into his world; Courtney’s woolly brand of guitar pop is inviting enough, but it’s up to you to step inside and infuse each melody with meaning.
It’s not so surprising that Courtney and the other two core members of Real Estate — Matt Mondanile and Alex Bleeker — grew up together in a quiet Northern Jersey suburb, the kind of place where life seems to move with all the urgency of a Norman Rockwell painting. Their music exists in a universe apart from deadlines, traffic jams, and other factors that might lead to hypertension. The stakes on an album like 2014’s Atlas are as low as they come, and to appreciate a songwriter like Courtney is to accept that genius doesn’t always have to shake the earth; sometimes, it just needs to lie down and let the waves do their work.
Real Estate has been mostly quiet this year, but its members have used the downtime to follow their own chilled-out inclinations to their logical conclusions. Mondanile’s Ducktails side project released the breezy, delicate St. Catherine over the summer, while Alex Bleeker and The Freaks dropped Country Agenda in mid-October. Neither of those albums strays far from the easy ebb and flow of Real Estate, and the same can be said for Courtney’s first solo effort. If anything, the songwriter has taken this chance to expand upon the dreamy, temporally displaced qualities of his main project.
Many Moons, as its name implies, is everywhere at once. It floats between sleep and total consciousness, between sunny West Coast pop and English folk, between past and present tense. It’s a slippery collection of songs that never settles on a particular style or influence and yet still manages to feel cohesive, thanks to Courtney’s penchant for polished melodies and dedication to substance over flash. It is also, like the several Real Estate records which precede it, a slight thing, better suited to the background of a coffee shop than to the sharper scrutiny of a home stereo. The album’s greatest weakness — ponderous lyrics that rely too much on cliches and abstractions — will likely bother critics far more than casual listeners. It’s strengths, on the other hand, are readily apparent to both.
Chief among these strengths is a collection of guitar-based melodies that rank among Courtney’s finest work in any context. Though more than proficient as an instrumentalist, he never falls into the trap of showboating, and it takes several repetitions to appreciate the subtle tricks that make each song move. Luckily, all 10 tracks on Many Moons take their time in unfolding and oftentimes loop back around on themselves, leaving plenty of space for the listener to pick out a jazzy chord change, a fluttering vocal harmony, or a flourish of strings that ties a verse to a chorus. To his credit, Courtney employs these accoutrements with discretion and only when it contributes to a song’s general atmosphere. The second guitar track that flanks the melody to “Awake” adds a lively brightness to its chorus, just as the strings in “Foto” evoke a wistful quality that plays off the song’s theme of nostalgia and impermanence.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best songs on Many Moons sound as if they’d fit comfortably on the next Real Estate full-length. “Vestiges” comes across as a more lush and polished version of a song like “The Bend”, and there are traces of “Talking Backwards” in the bouncy melody that powers standout track “Northern Highway”.
But what separates Many Moons from the work of Courtney’s main squeeze is the songwriter’s tendency to indulge other influences that might not fit under the general umbrella of indie guitar pop. The instrumental interlude “Many Moons”, for example, owes a heavy debt to Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, both of which helped set the template for chamber instrumentals in modern folk music. If you’re looking for a more contemporary reference point, it’s a good bet that Courtney has listened to his share of Mikal Cronin in the last couple of years. A big, lush track like “Asleep” recalls the cloudy indie pop of 2013’s MCII with a hearty serving of Yo La Tengo on the side.
In the end, Many Moons appears exactly as advertised: an album that showcases many different faces of the same essential thing. These songs won’t spark any revelations with their musings on time and the subconscious, but they might just transport you to a place that feels like a pleasant dream — a place between places, if you will, like the titular locale of closer “Airport Bar”. It’s a place that values reflection over action, a place where figuring it all out just takes time, and time is limitless. Let’s call this place the suburbs of the human mind.
Essential Tracks: “Vestiges”, “Northern Highway, and “Airport Bar”