While New Jersey indie rockers Real Estate have crafted critically acclaimed albums worthy of their wide-eyed and wistful pop, bandmembers have stayed busy with various side projects as outlets for their restless songwriting. While guitarist Matt Mondanile has explored both syrupy experimental jamming and cold synth pop with his Ducktails project, bassist Alex Bleeker stays closer to the rock roots of his main band, but calls on understated elements of jam band and traditional country motifs with Alex Bleeker & the Freaks. Backed ably by a rotating cast of Freaks (this time around including members of Woods, Big Troubles, Mountain Man, and many others), Bleeker uses the project as a showcase for his tunes, with How Far Away arriving as the bittersweet, softly lovelorn follow-up to his 2009 self-titled debut. Though there's plenty of tuneful, upbeat pop flowing through How Far Away (the Yo La Tengo guitar solos and boy/girl harmonies of "Who Are You Seeing?" or the reflective pop bounce of "Rhythm Shakers"), the album's general feel is a shambling and patient one, owing a debt to both early K Records D.I.Y. lackadasicality and the Zen-like approach of the Grateful Dead. Flubbed notes in a guitar solo or a less-than-stable tambourine rhythm are left intact for the bigger picture, one that folds Bleeker's distinctively raspy vocals into heartfelt songs focusing on faded love and love beginning. Stony lo-fi production puts Bleeker & the Freaks in the same class as contemporaries like Woods and Julian Lynch, with the googly-eyed phaser guitars of "See You on Sunday" and the daydreamy bedroom pop of "All My Songs" calling up the same drifty aesthetic. Elsewhere, however, pedal steel and solemn mandolin riffing show up intermittently among zoned-out drum machine numbers, pushing the album in several directions without making it feel too scattered. Bleeker's effortless songwriting and easygoing sense of both melody and arrangement makes How Far Away stick together nicely. The use of vocal harmonies is one of the major advancements of the album, with tracks like "Step Right Up (Pour Yourself Some Wine)" overflowing with both hooks and inventive vocal arrangements. The 11 songs breeze by quickly, cultivating a mood so generous and warm that listening to the album feels like a friend smiling and waving from across the room at the first party of the summer.
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Review by Fred Thomas