Here's a brief peek behind the curtain of the music biz: The more musicians you interview, the more you wonder if Alex Bleeker is the most popular guy in indie rock. Besides being third on the list of Real Estate band members most likely to sing lead, Bleeker has jammed with Philly's War On Drugs, been name-checked by Julian Lynch as a childhood friend from New Jersey and played an instrumental role in the formation of Mountain Man while the girls were students at Bennington University in Vermont.

From an outsider's perspective, Bleeker's network of support reenforces the image he displays during performances: casual to the bone, with a round face and beard, seemingly always near a beer and rarely lacking a smile. As an amiable bandmate, Bleeker seems happy in the shadows, but with the Freaks, the songwriter has nowhere to hide -- his name is the one in lights.

'How Far Away' launches the collection with Bleeker singing with a loose, faux twang, his voice cracking like an adolescent's. It's a style featured frequently enough that the "getting used to it period" can sort itself before the album reaches its conclusion, and what's more, Bleeker's vocals make sense, given the ramshackle shuffle the songs often adopt. Comprising Jarvis Tanviere (Woods), Jackson Pollis (Real Estate) and Sam Franklin (Big Troubles), the Freaks plays with subtlety, and the instrumentation rarely leaps past Bleekers words. But when it does -- the guitar noodling throughout 'See You On Sunday,' the peddle steel on 'Leave On the Light' and the Casio-ish keys of 'Time Cloud' -- tasteful restraint is a calling card of the songs.

With melodies that suggest Real Estate if it were fronted by Neil Young, 'How Far Away' goes all-in on Bleeker's songwriting, proving a smart bet. 'Who Are You Seeking?' one of four songs to feature Mountain Man's Amelia Meath on complimentary vocals, finds a band resolute in their relatively loud and fast country gallop, Bleeker and Meath reveling in their purposefully low-register vocals, sounding unaffected by the song's traditional themes. It works as a foil for the earworm 'Rhythm Shakers,' where both singers shift to tenors, letting the song's innate prettiness shape the presentation.

The final two cuts, though, cast Bleeker's album in a new light, making it impossible to dismiss 'How Far Away' as a mere side project. 'Step Right Up' is an effortlessly smooth Laurel Canyon throwback, and the moment where the Neil Young comparison is at its most vivid. Coupled with the intimate closer 'Love Fadeaway,' it leads to lingering questions of "what if?" If the songwriter focused on one thing and honed his craft, would we see a shift from consistently good work to consistently great work? It's a similar question we could ask about Julian Lynch and Matt Mondanile, and it's something we're now answering about Mikal Cronin: What can our artists do when given the chance to nurture their gifts? And most of the time, we'll never know, as these guys all seem to be doing exactly what they want, leaving listener's grateful for the flashes of greatness they get.