If nothing else, you have to give Eric Johnson credit for being his own man. He doesn’t listen to what critics have to say, and he sure doesn’t follow trends. With folk music surging in popularity this past year, the time seemed ripe for Johnson to cash in on the genre that he had been immersed in since his days playing banjo and guitar in Califone circa 2000. Instead, Spelled in Bones, is by far the Fruit Bats’ most pop-influenced album to date.
On Spelled in Bones, the Fruit Bats come even closer, stylistically speaking, to bands such as the Shins, which they have been unfavorably compared to ad nauseum. Ballsy stuff to be sure, but if Johnson were nervous going into the recording process, you’d never know it. Spelled in Bones shows him to be more polished and, more important, more focused than on any of his previous efforts.
Mellow and breezy, Spelled in Bones has “summer record” written all over it, with its warm, gentle pop melodies that would make Paul McCartney proud. The album is so upbeat that it’s hard to believe that at the onset, Johnson wanted this to be a dark, bummer record. There’s something almost comical about him going into the recording process with this frame of mind and then closing the album with “Every Day That We Wake Up It’s a Beautiful Day.”
The ‘70s definitely seemed to be on Johnson’s mind during the recording process. He borrows that decade’s pop sensibilities and name drops it on two song titles, “Born in the ‘70s” and “Earthquake of ’73.” For those of you who were hoping for another mouthful of, well, Mouthfuls (2003), the news isn’t all bad. The lap steel that shows up generously throughout the album shows Johnson hasn’t entirely forgotten his folk roots. And you don’t have to delve too deeply into Johnson’s lyrics to discover he’s still a naturalist at heart.
What this album shows above all is that Eric Johnson is going to make the kind of music that he wants to, regardless of what’s fashionable at the moment. Critics might not always like it (anyone who uses the word soporific in a record review is a dork anyway), but in the end that doesn’t seem to faze Johnson. In a world of image-conscious artists, that’s refreshing.