, September 14th, 2011 05:43
Fruit Bats' comfortable identity as one of the more eclectic bands on the side of melodic folk-rock took an irrevocable twist in 2009 when the man around whom everything to do with this group revolves, Eric D. Johnson, announced he was to become a permanent member of The Shins. The fruits of his presence in that band remain yet to be seen, but by the sound of Tripper, Johnson's exposure to James Mercer's perfectionist and economical approach to pop music has resulted in an album that has largely smoothed over most of the rough edges that were such a charming part of Fruit Bats' previous album, The Ruminant Band. Tripper is, however, still spectacular.
The Ruminant Band was a rollicking, deeply attractive thing, firmly rooted in the style that Johnson had been exploring with the Fruit Bats vehicle for over a decade, that being rather pastoral folk combined with a more old fashioned blue-collar rock. The Ruminant Band, released in 2009, was perhaps his ultimate statement in that domain, offering a more forthright and less accessible dose of what made Fleet Foxes so famous the year previously.
In its explicit references towards woozy psych, soul and even glam, Tripper is better, and marks Johnson as being a songwriter and rock auteur deserving of comparison with the likes of Mercer, Andy Cabic and Jim James. Indeed, such is the occasional step into more textured, Prince-style mild funk that Tripper is for Fruit Bats as Z was a watershed for My Morning Jacket. And while hardly an influence, fans of Luke Steele's sugary dream pop with The Sleepy Jackson will find things to admire here.
Several of these tracks are worthy of special mention. Opener 'Tony The Tripper' might be seen as a farewell to the Fruit Bats of The Ruminant Band in its driving acoustic guitar and Johnson's nightmarish depiction of a warped Americana. That is all left behind come the quite bizarre 'So Long', which sees Johnson repeating the line 'She should dance if she wants to dance' over a track that evokes all of Bowie, Rundgren, and, hell, M83. Tripper does not improve on this remarkable triumph, though it does take a few turns that further exhibit Johnson's exquisite songwriting touch. 'You're Too Weird' and 'Heart Like An Orange' both have an emotional earnestness and the odd passage of synth that reminds one of John Grant's Queen of Denmark.
Having made that comparison, Tripper is hardly confessional. In its recurring 'skid row' (so-called) motifs and cast of anti-social, rootless wretches, Johnson veers towards concept album territory, albeit without any linear narratives or in any way distinguishable characters. Fruit Bats' fifth album feels like a labour of love that was a long time in the making, Johnson carefully establishing all the subtle interweaving of phrases and instrumentation with an academic's hand. The result is the best album he has yet put his name to.
By the time it all ends with 'Picture Of A Bird', we are actually back at the more familiar Fruit Bats sound, making this a collection of songs that for all its exploration of more colourful and elaborate ground, is bookended by tracks that are straightforward and sparse. The journey that Tripper takes, without ever really reaching any destination, is fascinating, making it reasonable to hope that The Shins don't take up too much of Johnson's time, as he is, to use sporting parlance, in career-best form.