ERIC D. JOHNSON
In this often reflexive and world-weary era of popular music, there seems little room for unabashed wonder, or joy without suspicion. Some regrettable fear planted within each of us around the 7th grade or thereabouts still makes it hard to dance, hard to hold hands, hard to say "I love you," at least without a quick caveat or escape route at the ready. Over the course of three records, the last two on Sub Pop (2003's Mouthfuls and 2005's Spelled in Bones), Eric D. Johnson's Fruit Bats have looked for ways to file down the cynical edge of modern life and found many. Using bright melodies, defiantly major-key chord structures, natural imagery mixed with the occasional blazing insight and tender observation, the Fruit Bats have never shied away from darkness, but more uncommon in this day and age, they've refused to shy away from light.
With The Ruminant Band, this tradition continues in characteristically rich and involving fashion. Consider the title: it's no coincidence or shortcut that the name of the second track was plucked to represent the album as a whole. "Band" is the operative word here, as the Fruit Bats lineup has expanded to five, who in turn expand the sonic scope of Johnson's songs to include the barn-floor stomp of "The Hobo Girl" and the Fleetwood Mac-esque shimmy of the title track. On a recent message to fans on the band's website, Johnson promised on behalf of the Bats, "We are going to choogle for you." And while the potential for chooglin' has always existed in some form all the way back to Johnson's earliest 4-track experiments, The Ruminant Band sees it flower in full.
Now ponder the multiple meanings of the word "ruminant." Its most popular definition is "thoughtful," and the Fruit Bats are certainly that. But the term is also used to describe cloven-footed mammals of the suborder Ruminantia, which includes giraffes, cattle, goats, and (please refer to your well-worn copy of the Bats' 2001 debut Echolocation) buffalo and deer. Applied to the men behind the propulsive yet spacious '70s country-rock jam "Tegucigalpa" and the parlor piano soft-shoe of "Flamingo," this descriptor aptly represents the pastoral bent of the melodies and instrumentation, as well as their refreshingly good nature. When Johnson sings "Climb up with me to the monkey's nest /... Give your lovely lonesome head a rest / In the beautiful morning light" the colors of that light nearly become visible out of the speakers.
Production credit belongs to Fruit Bats drummer Graeme Gibson, who directs each song in a way that lets each composition stand on its own while remaining cohesive, recalling the good old days of albums as viable art forms. The approach lets each member play a variety of roles, with lead guitarist Sam Wagster rapidly and twangily soloing on "My Unusual Friend" and adding pedal steel to the bouncy "Being on Our Own," multi-instrumentalist Ron Lewis fleshing out the tunes with a variety of textures, and the whole thing underpinned by Fruit Bat constant Chris Sherman's inventive bass-lines. Though Johnson has spent the handful of years between Fruit Bats records playing with peers as heralded and forward-thinking as Vetiver and The Shins, the songwriting and production on The Ruminant Band mark a further crystallization of his own melodic instincts and overall vision over the past near-decade, abetted by brothers-in-arms who know both bluster and restraint.