Real Life Buildings are an indie rock band from New York, led by Matthew van Asselt (formerly of The Act of Estimating as Worthless, and Mt. Home Arts boss). Van Asselt is joined by Vagabon’s Lætitia Tamko, Elaiza Santos of Crying, Griffin Irvine on bass and drummer John Appel. Like all of van Asselt’s projects, Real Life Buildings have an idiosyncratic sound. The songs are full of lulls and spikes, the tempo and volume varying multiple times across each song, capturing the diversity of emotions and atmospheres that can be experienced on any given day.
In support of this are Van Asselt’s lyrics, delivered in a comfortingly deadpan sing-speak. They share something with the work of Nicholson Baker, quiet, everyday, scenes acting as backdrops to a rich internal life, small practical thoughts mixed up with big philosophical ones. It’s like being inside van Asselt’s daydreams—his mind making subconscious links, wandering towards the bigger questions. he can go from worrying about broken locks to ruminating on his place in the world, his matter of fact descriptions of a snow day flipping into metaphors on dreams and relationships.
As the title suggests, Significant Weather draws much of its imagery from the climate, perhaps the one thing that’s as ephemeral and changeable as our internal selves. Take for example the opening track ‘Cold’, which from its very first lines paints a picture not just of the weather but also the feelings of our narrator (“I am cold for the first time in a week / and I finally left my room / to find a pink sky light almost gone / and the mosquitos finally died at least I hope”). The voice is an anxious one, the aforementioned ups and downs plotting the understated rollercoaster ride of day-to-day living where dips and drops could appear at any moment.
‘No News’ faces up to the internet age malaise symptomatic of an endless supply of (mostly bad) news. “In my bedroom I don’t read the paper, I don’t click the links,” van Asselt sings, his words forming their own perpetual scroll, the sentence refusing to be ended by punctuation or the need to breathe. “I just scroll past them through an endless feed of headlines each one is worse than the last one I just blink my eyes and let it all slide by.” The feeling is a familiar one, seeing more and feeling less, the creeping apathy and residual guilt of consciously blocking other people’s tragedies.
‘Tare’ is classic Real Life Buildings, opening with van Asselt’s hushed vocals, delivering their unique brand of droll poetic waxing on the commonplace, before building into rousing indie rock. The final lines capture the song’s ultimate message, a reassuring reminder that even in times of struggle, uncertainty or inertia, you remain yourself underneath. Van Asselt captures this message using the metaphor of a garden, in lines that are empathetic and kind, illustrating that his writing moves far beyond jittery bummed-out vibes.
“When my feet get stuck, the weeds just grow
but the plants remain,
it’s okay if it stays like that for now
sometimes my feet get stuck, and the weeds just grow and grow
but the garden doesn’t disappear”
‘Other Windows’ is set in the city, those days where you don’t leave your home, the only link to the outside world other people’s photos on social media. A sense of sadness seeps between the notes, the loneliness of midwinter workdays “where at lunch we can talk about the weather, or talk about what we made for dinner.” The whole band join van Asselt at the beginning of ‘Black Kettle’, singing of being snatched cruelly from a dream of wanting to sleep (by waking up, naturally). The sudden appearance of other voices is oddly moving, perhaps because until now we’ve been stuck inside van Asselt’s head. The track is like those dreams you sometimes have, the ones where your childhood friends are back and the same as always, everything dipped in a kind of dreamy golden light.
The second of a trio of songs recycled from 2014’s It Snowed, ‘Thaw’ tells of driving into New York in the snow, the sheer amount of small details and odd observations giving the whole thing a hyperactive life. “Mounds of snow pushed toward the kerb and covered in all of the dirt of New York,” van Asselt notes. “But the sun is peeking out, and all of its wavelengths get absorbed by my black jeans, and my skin gets too hot so the ice must be starting to melt.” The last of the re-recorded songs is ‘Ground Cover’, which also uses snowy imagery, this time to explore the difference between dreams or relationships first imagined and then realised (“but we ruined it, by walking through it, it was only perfect until we got there”).
‘The Same Hook Repeating’ rattles along in a punkish gallop, the lyrics seeing the narrator sneak out of a party, retreat home, “slide into a chair” and waste time online, before the record closes with ‘Ripple Effect’, a song about more than just houseplants and lengthening days, a final example of the Real Life Buildings deft use of imagery and turns of phrase.
“But the days are getting longer and the road is getting clearer
because I got a stronger prescription
but other than that not much has changed so I still check my email every half hour
to see if anything will
I know I’ll get something some day soon”
Real Life Buildings capture both the quiet minutiae of day to day living—the soft feeling you get in an empty room with just a ticking clock and raindrops on the window pane for company—and the exhilarating rush of joy that is still sometimes possible. It’s music that, despite its anxiety and concern, still sees that silvery sheen of magic in the mundane, a fun indie rock record and a lesson in paying attention to what’s going on both inside and outside your head.