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Fruit Bats - The Ruminant Band

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Artist: Fruit Bats

Album: The Ruminant Band

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Jul. 30, 2009

After detours as guitar slinger for Vetiver and the Shins, Eric Johnson returns to Fruit Bats with a little more of the mystic in him. He brings along a full band this time – Sam Wagster on guitars and piano, Ron Lewis on keyboards, Christopher Sherman on bass and Graeme Gibson on drums – as well as a handful of guests. Two of these guests – Tim Rutilli and Jim Becker – date from Johnson’s days of playing banjo and guitar in Califone. Rutili’s Perishable label put out Fruit Bats’ debut, Echolocation.

The pairing makes sense, and not just on historical grounds, because you could make the case that Califone and Fruit Bats follow parallel paths. Rutili’s outfit bended traditional blues into psychedelic mystery, using homespun (and home-made, in the case of the percussion) instruments to explore surreal and experimental landscapes. Johnson’s band starts with country rock, rather than blues, but his instincts are the same, to warp comfortable forms into mystical shapes, implying the mystery behind the familiar without wholly removing its familiarity.

As a result, Fruit Bats’ songs often register as breezy summer pop, full of summery guitar jangle, tremulous tenor melodies and bright rustic rhythms. “Primitive Man” starts in a shimmer of Takoma-style picking, bass drum waltzing with tambourine upbeats in a 1-2-3 whirl. The tune has the easy grace of Vetiver, but more rhythm and sense of play. And while simple on the surface, the song allows psychedelic whorls and arabesques to escape its rigorous verse chorus structure. A pedal steel solo from Wagster fairly levitates out of plain-spoken boundaries.

Later, in the title track, 1970s rock sunniness lurks in tangled, cavorting guitars, which crisscross in long pentatonic runs and somersaulting downhill flourishes. You think of Television, of the Allman Brothers, as the guitars play tag with one another, running over sunlit swaths of melody. And yet there’s something spiritual at the core of even the most AM-radio-ish of these cuts, whose lyrics, like parables, suggest larger truths in the everyday. A good Samaritan image of giving a blanket to a poor girl arises in not one but two songs, first in the brief, lovely, all-hands Grateful Dead-like chorus of “Hobo Girl,” and later in the Neil Young-esque “Feather Bed.”

There are love songs, too, given extra heft by Johnson’s cracked and wandering tenor, as he invites a girl to “climb up into the monkey’s nest” (“Beautiful Morning Light”) or describes a tryst at a Three Dog Night concert played at the Fairgrounds (“Singing Joy to the World”). But the heart of this album seems to consider big spiritual questions, like death and rebirth (“And you’ll come back as the soil before you come back as a soul”), giving of oneself (“you’ll always eat bread if you always have seeds to sow”) and self-determination (“Be the one who will do what thou wilt / who will do as you please”). It is these songs, paradoxically, that jangle the hardest, that seem, on their surface to be the simplest kind of sunny rock. You could miss whole philosophies by following the guitar line too closely…and forgo featherbeds of tuneful pleasures by worrying too much about the words. And yet, ride the line just right, and meaning floods translucently simple songs, lighting them up from inside and transforming them.

By Jennifer Kelly

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