[Domino; 2011]

Real Estate didn’t burst on the scene back in 2009 so much as slide their beach chairs into sepia-toned view. Forgive the puns, but their self-titled debut was part of the broader, jangly garage-surf wave that flooded “the scene” over the last couple of years. Beach Fossils, Best Coast, Real Estate, et cetera: they all married chillwave’s nostalgic idealism with decidedly lo-fi and unadorned rock, like they were all hitting the same briny joint. As such, the New Jersey quartet’s earlier efforts were well-regarded but didn’t necessarily reflect an overarching aesthetic vision beyond cassette-recorded memories of some halcyon youthful summer.

In contrast with the self-titled album’s stoned, friendly vibes, Days simply exudes confidence. They’ve clearly stepped up their production values in every respect; this time around, Etienne Duguay’s drums don’t sound so smothered or submerged, Matthew Mondanile’s guitar glides through each track with a sense of reverberating nostalgia clearly influenced by his solo work as Duktails, Alex Bleeker plays base with steadier and simpler purpose, and Martin Courtney’s vocals are layered and harmonized with more care and complexity than they ever were before. Then there are the tinier details that get the opportunity to shine through, like the subtle bells on opener “Easy,” the soft backing keyboards on “It’s Real” and “Out of Tune,” and the distant tambourine-woodblock combo on “Kinder Blumen.” The fact that Real Estate would even choose to include these embellishments in the first place suggests a willingness to grow, while their restrained use reflects a band that doesn’t feel the need to prove their growth; as the saying goes, they show us that they’ve expanded their sound instead of just telling us.

Most importantly, however, this heightened production sets the stage for a vastly improved set of songwriting. With its catchy, wordless chorus and warped guitar lines, “It’s Real” is an immediate standout, showing a greater force than I expected from the band. Whereas the songs on their debut tended to languidly meander, here they’re tighter and more focused. Meanwhile, “Out of Tune” is circular but never stagnant, weaving through varied levels of excitement — with help from echoing cymbal crashes and double guitar lines that complement each other rather than duel — in ways we haven’t heard from these guys before. “Municipality” and “Wonder Years” both feature 60s pop harmonies, but employ them in different contexts; the former deftly mixes psychedelic and country-tinged tones while the latter sounds like an alt-rock update on some mid-century folk classic. “Younger Than Yesterday” reminds me of the wistful lounge sound of R.E.M. circa the underrated, slightly pulpy Reveal. Days is a couple of minutes longer than its predecessor, but it feels significantly shorter.

And that’s definitely a good thing, because it means that these songs are the best the band has ever written. Indeed, while their debut album was good, it was very much concerned with hazy nostalgia; it was surf rock through a Polaroid lens — enjoyable but hardly special. On Days, Real Estate shed that crutch, and this focus on musicality over atmosphere allows for a solid set of pop-rock songs that succeeds on its own melodic merits.

“Oh, when you came back from the sea, it’s true — you brought another dude,” Courtney sings on closer “All The Same.” But he’s not whining, unlike some of his seaside peers (I’m looking at you, Bethany Cosentino). Instead, he deals with this romantic infidelity with poise and straightforward consideration — much like Days as a whole. Whether or not you think this whole “sun-bleached” sound is played out, there’s no denying the fact that Real Estate have transcended that whole notion. This is a great pop-rock album because it doesn’t feel the need to be anything else.