Fruit Bats have existed under the radar of all but the most eagle-eared for the last decade. Quite why the pop-tinged folk efforts of singer-songwriter Eric Johnson’s band have gone widely un-noticed is anyone’s guess, yet Johnson continues regardless, evolving his band’s sound over the last 10 years and with Tripper he may finally have hit upon a winner. Fundamentally a continuation from previous album The Rudiment Band and with Johnson having turned his hand to film scores recently, it’s no surprise to find that Fruit Bats’ sound has become more substantial and densely textured.
This new scope can be felt instantly on the album opener Tony The Tripper, a song that also introduces the album’s theme of hitting the road and not looking back. Over a basic guitar strum, Johnson details his travels with Tony The Tripper and a host of strange characters. The lean towards a fuller sound is felt sparingly here, with Johnson preferring to leave most of the atmosphere to be set with an immaculately delivered vocal that hits high notes like a heart monitor on the blink.
It’s not until the beautifully orchestrated So Long that the full scale of Johnson’s musical vision becomes apparent. A dainty waltz about a girl who “should dance if she wants to dance”; the chiming xylophones, elegant harpsichord and aching keyboards combine to make a song that could have been plucked straight from a fairytale.
The flipside to the fairytale is neatly summed up by the cautionary tale of Tangie And Ray, two runaways whose escape from their old town life sees them ending up living down in the dirt, destined to never go home. Johnson’s vocal finds just the right emotional weight as the band provides an aching countrified backing track, weirdly calling to mind the later work of Supergrass (when they dropped the cheeky chappie stuff and got all serious).
Latest single You’re Too Weird is a straight forward but catchy folk inflected pop song. The low key keyboards provide substance, but it’s Johnson’s sublime vocal at the close that makes the song really come alive, singing “I’m the only one that ever believed in you” with a fragile falsetto and leaving not a dry eye in the house.
Dolly would be another candidate for a single with its slapback ’50s R’n’R guitar, carnival organs, and simplistic pop hooks. It’s an instant earworm if ever there were one.
If the first half of the album is packed with chirpy tunes laden with disturbingly hued stories, then The Banishment Song marks a shift in tone for the rest of the album. It might be a little heavy and meandering, but there’s something undeniably courageous about a song that combines the likes of Elton John, Scissor Sisters and The Bee Gees in a haunting ballad. The deft orchestration, perfect chord progressions convey profound sadness, whilst the high pitched vocal which sounds as if it should be gracing a euphoric ’70s disco classic, barely hides the regret and the hurt contained in the lyrics.
It’s fair to say that the album sags somewhat from here on in. The Fen is an instrumental distraction with seemingly little purpose, whilst the lament of Wild Honey promises much but offers little other than some spacious atmospherics.
Just as the early promise of the album looks to be coming unwound, closing track Pictures Of A Bird finds the band in fine form. With a blues laden guitar track and quite beautiful orchestration providing gravitas when needed it is one of the finest moments on an album that should see Fruit Bats and Eric Johnson finally receive the acclaim they deserve.