Some musicians are obviously aiming for universal greatness: bands like Arcade Fire writing anthems big enough to change the world, Animal Collective expanding our brains with otherworldly electronica, or The Dirty Projectors or Beach House discovering a wholly novel strain of rock music and refining it without competition. Though not without ambitions of their own, Real Estate's goals have always been a little lower and a lot narrower, taking a distinct enough (if not totally unique) rock style and using it to just, you know, write some good songs. The two non-frontman members of Real Estate each have a respectable side project of their own. Of the three interrelated bands, Alex Bleeker and the Freaks might just aim the lowest, but they bring something different to the table.
All three bands release music on the Woodsist label, but Alex Bleeker and the Freaks sound the most like they actually belong there, easily palatable to anyone fond of Woods' ramshackle psychedelia. How Far Away is their second album, but it feels like their first – it actually makes their self-titled debut, a modest collection of Neil Young-indebted guitar jams, feel like a casual soundcheck. How Far Away balances the jam band free-for-all aesthetic with jangly power pop, resulting in a much more engaging and focused listening experience. Album opener “Don't Look Down” is an upbeat pop song played with a hazy, beachside languor, proving that Bleeker has no intentions of rehashing his first album.
The power pop side of How Far Away is undoubtedly the stronger. Buoyed by backing vocals from Mountain Man's Amelia Meath, “Step Right Up (Pour Yourself Some Wine)” and “Rhythm Shakers” shamble through innocuous enough verses before unfolding into brilliantly catchy choruses that feel both fresh and immediately classic, evoking a nighttime crowdwide singalong at a Woodstock-era festival, but played with the earnest intimacy of a campfire jam with friends. “Who Are You Seeing?” is the most unabashedly catchy pop song, coming off as a cross between a stripped-down The New Pornographers and those playful Moldy Peaches as Bleeker and Meath stretch the word “seeeeee” out with a cheeky, smiling innocence.
As easy as it is to compare Alex Bleeker and the Freaks to Real Estate and Woods (each band even contributed a member to the Freaks for this album), such comparisons aren't kind to How Far Away. Ultimately, the hooks just aren't as compelling as anything Real Estate's done, and the psychedelic jam-outs don't come close to either Woods' restless unpredictability or their Grateful Dead cheer. The power pop stuff hits a nice untapped vein in today's musical landscape, but hazier songs like “See You On Sunday” and “Time Cloud” feel unrealized, neither grabbing the ear nor setting much of an atmosphere. If Alex Bleeker wasn't actually in Real Estate, this album would lead me to assume that he's the kind of guy who would hear a chorus like the one in “It's Real” and dismiss the band for trying too hard. There's something refreshing to A.B. and the Freaks' casual feel, but it's what ultimately stifles the album's softer songs.
Compared to his first album, How Far Away is a big step for Alex Bleeker. It may not push any boundaries, but it's enjoyable, varied, and, at its best, pretty engaging. If Bleeker can keep on attracting interesting bandmates like Amelia Meath and letting them add some more vibrant colors to his charming-but-bland delivery, Alex Bleeker and the Freaks will be a band to watch.
1. Don't Look Down
2. See You On Sunday
3. Leave On the Light
4. Home I Love
5. Time Cloud
6. Who Are You Seeing?
7. Rhythm Shakers
8. All My Songs
9. Steve's Theme
10. Step Right Up (Pour Yourself Some Wine)
11. Love Fadeaway