UP UNTIL last year, no one was sure if we’d ever hear from the Fruit Bats again. After stealing hearts with the 2005 release Spelled in Bones, Eric Johnson—formerly the only permanent member of the band—stepped quietly out of the spotlight and off to the side of the stage, playing wingman to myriad other acts including Vetiver and The Shins. On the mellow side as far as front men go, Johnson’s new undertakings fit him so well that it seemed more than plausible to think that he might not, in fact, ever be coming back. Yet the band’s website continued to update from time to time, rumors seeped in through the silence, and despite a near-total withdrawal from the public eye, hope began to glitter and glisten once more with the 2008 announcement that the Fruit Bats were regrouping—this time without a rotating lineup—and there would, indeed, be a much anticipated new album due out in 2009. Of course, now that the album is finally here, the million-dollar question quickly follows: does The Ruminant Band live up to the expectation?
The answer depends largely on the expectation. If fans are looking to take a trip down a Mouthfuls memory lane, then you’d best unpack your bags, sit back down, wait another four years and see what happens. If you’d rather the luscious romance of Spelled in Bones, then I’m afraid you’ll also find this release a little lacking. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to step outside of the comfort zone Johnson created with his last two efforts, if you’ll bend the rules in favor of production, percussion, and electric guitars, then The Ruminant Band is exactly the release we’ve been waiting for these four quiet years.
That we‘re in for something completely new is apparent from the beginning. “Primitive Man,” the album’s opening track, delivers unexpected timpani, three levels of rhythm guitar (acoustic, clean, mild gain) and a lap-steel/pedal-steel bridge duet with leads to follow, all without sacrificing the band’s signature syncopation (believe it or not, it actually gets better here), driving acoustics, and picturesque poetry.
But the differences aren’t the same across the board. The reverb-heavy “Hobo Girl” delivers a hint of ragtime mixed with old-fashioned country and a barroom chorale, while “Being On Our Own” continues to play with steel leads. “Singing Joy to the World” dabbles in at least three time signatures, two of which are relatively unorthodox, especially for a band whose earlier works might unfairly make them look like amateur musicians.
In light of these differences, though, the band hasn’t left itself behind. For listeners who desperately need to have some of that acoustic Fruit Bats bittersweet, there’s “Beautiful Morning Light,” a folk love song recalling innocence and a simple, quiet peace—the sort of romance that caused us to fall for Johnson’s music in the first place. And while “Singing Joy to the World” takes the atypical Fruit Bats approach of telling what sounds like someone else’s story, the off-beats and gentle acoustics recall the soothing tones of much of their earlier work.
The advancement of Johnson‘s musical prowess, however, is not the only thing that deserves credit for the change in the band‘s sound. Equally worthy of praise is producer Graeme Gibson (Califone, Joan of Arc, among others) who played drums on the album in addition to lending his mastering skills. Between experimenting with various percussion and reverb effects previously foreign to the band’s sound and mixing the vocals deeper into the music, Gibson’s production seems to be the driving force behind the album’s robust flavor, bringing Fruit Bats to a level of psychotropic vibrance where Johnson‘s lyrics have always lived, but where the sound rarely went to visit.
The irony, though, is that the vocals are the only component of Ruminant Band to have suffered from Gibson’s mix. Front to back, Johnson’s voice is saturated in reverb, drowning enough of the already-suboptimal enunciation to effectively steal some of the lyrical wind. For example, the title-track single starts as what appears to be a modern day example of the perfect classic rock tune: after launching into a tambourine-driven intro, it delivers complimentary walk-down licks in conjunction with an overdrive-heavy solo, topped off with words you couldn’t understand if the futures of ripped jeans and magic mushrooms were at stake. The difference is that classic rock bands could get away with muddled lyrics because they rarely had anything profound to say in the first place; the Bats have a higher calling, and one that leads to a universal expectation from fans: we want to hear what Johnson has to say.
Despite not being able to understand every lyric uttered, what is perhaps most striking about The Ruminant Band is the genuine happiness it evokes. True, the Fruit Bats have always been known for brighter tones and major keys, but while most of their previous material maintained an underlying melancholy, this record does nothing of the kind. Take the closing track, “Flamingo,” a nostalgia-inducing tune complete with record scratches and that feeling of being the last man sipping bourbon in an old saloon. While lyrics like, “The place where I was born is a vague memory/Like the flakes of snow in the broke-down TV” connote sadness, perhaps even depression, the song’s tone doesn’t let us sink to anything below distantly wistful. In a subtle, cozy sort of way, it not only makes you want to be that guy in the saloon, but it even gives the impression that to do so might actually be fun.
There is hardly a thing worth complaining about on this record. It continues in the band’s tradition of both capitalizing on their potential as well as pushing the boundaries of their musical comfort zone. In an industry climate where artists are played up as quickly as they’re played out, the Fruit Bats remain unfailingly dedicated to sustenance, survival, and best of all, making their audiences smile.
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