Walking in Memphis, in Alex Chilton’s shoes…

Posted: May 14, 2013 in New Indie Music

Alex Bleeker and The FreaksALEX-BLEEKER-AND-THE-FREAKS-how far away cover

How Far Away

Woodsist Records

Review by Kent Manthie

Alex Bleeker, bass player for the Ridgewood, New Jersey-based band, Real Estate, has just finished his sophomore effort with his side band, Alex Bleeker and The Freaks, an indie “supergroup” of sorts, which also includes Mountain Man’s Amelia Meath, Woods’ Jarvis Tanviere, Real Estate’s Jackson Pollis, & Big Troubles’ Sam Franklin.

How Far Away is a shining album (check out “Who Are You Seeing Now?” a really shimmering, dreamy breakup song) which features tunes about breaking up and the changing aspects vantage points of the apogees and nadirs of life’s wavy graph of experiences; as well as the realization that there’s no getting around aging and the spent too much time preparing for tomorrow or dwelling on the past that they forgot to live in the present and the next thing you know you’re 40-50 years old and suddenly realize that – whoa! – all that time you’ve been wasting making plans for has suddenly, like some blurry montage, passed you by and now you’re filled with an olio of emotions such as fond nostalgia, regret, gratefulness that you’ve accomplished the things that you did get done, but also a ruing for lost chances, ones that got away, ambitions that were long ago put on the shelf, with the intention of picking them up again, but other, in hindsight, petty, but nonetheless, necessary “living” got in the way.

This is a pretty broad spectrum of ideas that I’m throwing out there, but they’ve been coming at me, while listening to How Far Away, in fact, I’ve probably gone overboard and put way too much interpretation into Alex Bleeker and from where he’s coming. Although those little tidbits are possible angles that you’ll also hear from Nick Cave (with or without the Bad Seeds), Lou Reed, although, in the last two decades, in his now clean mind, he’s more depressed sounding – many of his more recent stuff has dealt with the theme of getting older and with it, the loss of many, many friends along the way – Lou was, as was everyone else, distraught when Andy Warhol died so prematurely and in such a needless, screw-up (Andy went in for gall-bladder surgery in late summer or so of 87 and ended up dying on the table because of a screw-up due to the anaesthesia. How much of a waste is that? Like that famous line in the title track of Street Hassle (1978) – “…they call it ‘bad luck’”). But in the case of the album at hand, How Far Away, Alex Bleeker is not 72 years old, he isn’t reflecting back on a roller-coaster life with a cast of thousands, many of whom are now dead, many physically and a few in spirit. No, Alex seems to already know that this is how life is and wants to paint a pretty picture of his own. Alex is lucky to have more than one outlet for his busy and diffuse sides.

In one way one could put in a box with the eclectic Guided By Voices, but not as edgy or with any number of his contemporaries. And that is one thing I like about the various “scenes” that make up indie rock today: you have your New York clique, the wider East Coast vein that goes from New Jersey to Massachusetts down to North Carolina (Merge Records, Superchunk, et al) and you have the awesome Chicago sound of the past 10 years – one that, right now, is really being steered by greats such as Polyvinyl Records. Then, of course one can’t leave out the West Coast – scenes: everyone from the Northern California-Bay Area sprawl, that easily fits in with the further North – Portland, Seattle, etc. and of course, the perennial new crop of stuff that comes out of L.A. County and its bitchy stepsister from the south, Orange County and then, throw in San Diego music, which isn’t so easy to define and you have it.

One thing that really stood out to me is how much like Big Star, in particular and Alex Chilton, in general. It is a fabulous tribute to the sad, sad news about the untimely death of Chilton, who passed away March 19, 2010 very unexpectedly. Actually, Chilton’s sad demise is not the first death that has haunted Big Star: his original Big Star partner, Chris Bell, died December 27, 1978. Unfortunately for both Big Star and Bell, they parted ways after Big Star their debut album, #1 Record failed to (at that time, anyway – nowadays all the original Big Star albums are considered classics) find “commercial success” and that is a damned poor excuse for quitting a band, but I’m sure there were other, more complex (?) issues behind the simple explanation.

Alex Bleeker and The Freaks sound like a sunny day jingle pop sound with introspective, inward-looking lyrics that meditate on life and its various delights and let downs. Bleeker & co. also, like Chilton, et al, also have that simple Memphis-tinged and urbane charm to their songs. The 11 song, half-hour length album showcases a string of songs, averaging about 2 ½ minutes apiece. The rather short length of the album, interestingly enough, doesn’t leave one wanting more or missing a raison d’etre. It’s LIFE and its ups and downs and the fact that, unless you want to become a bitter old angry person, you’d better take heed and stay focused on what’s in front of you and where the deceptively twisting and turning road takes you. “Leave on the Light” is a great, homespun Neil-Young-esque ballad that warns you to raise your signal – keep your light on – and what’s supposed to come will. The song’s use of the pedal steel guitar makes it, as well as the following, “Home I Love” a dreamy, meadowscape of sunny mornings when the sun isn’t so high as to take your breath away, but rather a perfect time to meditate on the finer things your life has to offer. “Time Cloud” indeed sounds like floating on a cloud, the keyboard-synths chiming in a hypnotic ring which underscores an echoing slow, drifting poetic tune.

The whole album, listened to in one long sitting runs through several different emotions, from the sublime, to the melancholy to the evocation of loving memories which only exist in the mind. “Who Are You Seeing” has a rip-roaring guitar solo, which ends out the songs, but which punctuates an otherwise cloud-tripping dreamscape. It’s a beautiful album. Sure to make one nostalgic for the Memphis of the 70s, when Big Star created the “Memphis” sound – a tuneful, pretty, gentle sound that in a non-nihilistic way is haunting. Not only showing us what was, but what could’ve been and what the new fillies of indie music still have the chance to grab the baton and continue in this vein. -KM

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