Review Summary: A surprisingly diverse solo debut
Alex Bleeker, best known as the bassist and occasional vocalist for everyone’s favorite New Jersey indie beach-core band Real Estate, evidently has a wide range of musical ideas he wants to share. The latest vehicle for sharing them is his first solo album, a new milestone in a career which previously consisted of involvement in Real Estate and in fronting a side project, Alex Bleeker and the Freaks. Bleeker has previously written and sang several of Real Estate’s more folk and country leaning tunes, and the Freaks’ 2015 eponymous debut was fairly indebted to Neil Young, so one might expect this new effort to be an Americana-tinged affair. There’s some accuracy to this expectation, but in the end Bleeker ends up covering a wider-than-expected range. The results are solid but far from flawless, and the LP feels like a grab-bag at times. Nonetheless, the end result is a sunny-day record which will be enjoyable to many.
The thirteen tracks comprising Heaven On The Faultline represent a fairly diverse range of styles and impulses. There are, unsurprisingly, numerous tracks, including the beachy opener “A/B Ripoff” which could be taken off any Real Estate record. “Felty Feel” and “La La La” come to mind as additional examples of this trend. Late highlight “Reach For My Brain” also falls into this category, even though it rocks a bit harder with its psyched out guitar solos. There are also numerous tracks which swing towards a folk/country direction, often with influences from older musical eras. Album centerpiece “Mashed Potatoes”, for example, is groovy blues/folk reminiscent of J.J. Cale’s understated style. Meanwhile, “D Plus” utilizes a rustic charm, although at nearly six minutes (by far the album’s longest track), it somewhat overstays its welcome. The brief closer “Lonesome Call” goes all in on the country, with Bleeker affecting a plaintive cowboy vocal style in a way which strangely works out exceptionally. It’s an interesting closer, as the overt simplicity of the track works well as a last closeout, but also leaves an odd taste as it is dramatically different from anything that came before on the record. Ultimately, many of the highlight tracks here are the ones which split the difference between these tendencies. The title track, which sees Bleeker sounding a bit like the War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel, is a melancholy folk rock song which works nicely. “Tamalpais”, late in the album, might be the best track of all, featuring meditative lyrics over a somber musical backdrop. “Parking Lot” is another beauty, seemingly channeling a bit of 90s-era Yo La Tengo as well.
When discussing this album, the lyrics do deserve a mention. In the runup to album release, Bleeker described the preeminent theme of the album as “dealing with the anxiety of a sense of impending doom”, and this can definitely be placed in many of the songs here. The lyrical quality is strong, and there are some gems. The resigned “don’t mean to be a downer, but there’s nothing I can do” from “Felty Feel” and the biting cynicism of “I want peace and justice, but really what’s the use” from “Mashed Potatoes” come to mind. The paranoia and general sense of disturbance which has prevailed recently in the United States come through in the lyrical subject matter, and when listening to the title track is easy to wonder whether Bleeker is referencing the tectonic activity of his adopted home state California or the yawning social divisions of the Trump-era USA, or both. The caveat when praising these lyrics is that the overwhelming vibe of this album is summery mellowness, something that runs reliably through all the tunes regardless of their stylistic differences. This laid-back vibe is accentuated by the way most of Bleeker’s vocals often aren’t especially prominent, so for many listeners the lyrics may be an afterthought. While it would be foolish to say that sunny-sounding music can’t work with depressing lyrical subject matter (Purple Mountains would like a word), it doesn’t seem that the lyrics are quite as front-and-center as they could merit, at least on some tracks.
The other major gripe which can be raised regarding this album is that it often feels more like a collection of songs than a homogenous entity in its own right. The most egregious example of this is the album’s section from the fourth through sixth track, where the listener goes from the mid-tempo folk rock of the title track, right into the loud bluesy guitar of “Heavy Tupper”, and then immediately following straight into the Real Estate-esque “La La La”. There is a scenario where this sequence could work, but unfortunately it doesn’t here to these ears. These issues are compounded as the general order of the tracklist seems strange. In particular, the opener is a perfectly enjoyable mellow instrumental, but given the number of superior and more representative tracks on the record it seems questionable to use this for a first impression. Finally, there’s a few tracks which don’t work especially well, notably the hazed-out psychedelia of “Twang”, which feels like a failed experiment, and the mellow instrumental “Swang”, which could’ve been left off.
Notwithstanding these critiques, this review isn’t too harsh. This LP has plenty of great tracks and does maintain a thread of consistency running throughout by way of its sunshine-drenched and languid vibes. With the advent of spring, there’s definitely a need for feel-good tunes worth jamming on a warm, bright day (even if the lyrics to said tunes might not be quite so feel-good). Heaven On The Faultline is well worth a listen if that’s what you’re looking for.