Since 2001’s Echolocation, Eric Johnson has been crafting songs that have mainly dealt with the natural world. His non-sentimental approach has been fresh and careful, exploring themes such as man vs. himself, man vs. nature and man vs. love, set to equally fresh sounds that often fuse acoustic plucking with (sometimes electronic) atmospherics.
The Ruminant Band is Johnson’s first Fruit Bats release since 2005’s upbeat Spelled in Bones. In the meantime, he has been playing journeyman with such understandably like-minded acts as Vetiver and the Shins. His time with those folks has influenced the songs on this new album by giving them a sheen of western jauntiness and tighter structures. The Ruminant Band is not a clearly defined departure from earlier work, but just as it introduces new barroom sounds to their rural repertoire, it builds upon his creativity and ability to be catchy that originally made the Fruit Bats interesting.
A onetime member of Califone, Johnson has always been able to stretch a song into unknown territory. The layers of his rhythms separate, but rather than becoming abstract, or freak-ish, they become daydream-like. First hinted at on Spelled in Bones, Johnson has taken a liking to a tighter, more straightforward country-rock or smooth-‘70s sound. His time with Vetiver, then, seems fitting. Their association with the San Francisco folk scene has been one of compassion, but they have taken a musical direction that favors hi-fi traditionalism to the popular lo-fi freak aspect, but still appreciates the idea of experimentation.
These traits, perhaps, rubbed off on the current incarnation of the Fruit Bats, but are not entirely different from their songs on Echolocation or 2003’s Mouthfuls. On those albums, songs were tinged with spacey-ness and at times never found footing, but rather existed in a fleeting psychedelic state. Just as the popularity of the San Francisco sound continues to rise, the Fruit Bats remain closely related, but all their own.
On The Ruminant Band, Johnson’s tenor has become weathered and almost giddy. If there is a departure to be defined, it is that the songs have become more identifiable. The country-western “Hobo Girl” is a drunken rumpus that deteriorates into rowdy crowd-noise rather than a rural landscape. The title track is a sunny west-coast pop song that sways between catchy guitar riffs, bell jangles, and harmonic “ohhhs.” Perhaps the strangest song is the piano driven “Feather Bed,” on which Johnson resembles Elton John as he sings “can’t give me too much love.” The album’s affinity for traditional hooks, mixed with Johnson’s ability to depart from the traditional makes this album one of the Fruit Bats most listenable and enjoyable.
There are, after all, still pieces of earlier Fruit Bats work. Songs often establish themselves only to drift amorphously into altogether new places. “Tegucigalpa” begins as a Cars song, but eventually turns into a groove more reminiscent of the Grateful Dead. “Beautiful Morning Light” returns to the trademark subject of nature. Also, Johnson renews his quiet storytelling with “Singing Joy to the World” with a story about a mismatched couple’s one night of bliss at a fairground’s Three Dog Night concert. It is the king of kitsch that allows Johnson to get away with his own brand of over-romanticizing. Another noticeable change from the album four years ago is how dynamic it seems compared to the prior.
The current line-up includes Sam Wagster (guitars, Piano), Ron Lewis (Keyboards), Christopher Sherman (Bass), and Graeme Gibson (drums). Former band mates and current Califoners Tim Rutilli and Jim Becker also made contributions. The improved musicianship and a textured production give The Ruminant Band a dynamic quality. Songs build and destruct, as they never have. Album closer “Flamingo” sits in murky vinyl fuzz, which only adds to its character as a wandering barroom waltz.
Johnson, the Fruit Bats, have always been able to add depth to what seems like a sappy AM song. Discussing the spiritual with a poetic smile and playing with how far they can get away from sunny, up-tempo rhythms while still adhering allows them to create something all their own rather than ending up as bubblegum. They’ve proven to be consistently good, especially with The Ruminant Band.