Fruit Bats’ frontman Eric Johnson’s career arc has been an interesting one. Johnson got his start with the indie-rock (and fantastically named) outfit I, Rowboat back in 1996. Three years later he formed the Fruit Bats, an indie-folk act taking cues from Brian Wilson and Ray Davies. Under the Fruit Bats banner, Johnson emerged as one of Chicago’s most promising, if unheralded, songwriters. In the meantime Johnson joined Califone and the Shins, and until now the Fruit Bats have lain dormant.
“The Ruminant Band,” the Bats’ first release since 2005, is aptly titled. For the most part the album picks up where “Spelled in Bones” left off, but with an increased emphasis on the band, which makes for a fuller, though slightly less personal, sounding record. From “Primitive Man,” with its extended acoustic intro and the pounding echo of percussion, to the jamming folk-stomp of “The Hobo Girl,” for the first time Fruit Bats sound more like a band and less like a solo artist with backing musicians.
Most of what made Johnson’s earlier music so endearing is back in full force. Take “Being on Our Own,” where Johnson teases the Beatles’ “Don’t Pass By Me” before unfolding a sunny melody over saloon-style piano and slide guitar. “We are not alone,” Johnson sings like a brighter, more pop-infused Ryan Adams. “Beautiful Morning Light” is more on the folk side of things, a simple love song in the style of “John Wesley Harding”-era Bob Dylan, but effective nonetheless.
“My Unusual Friend” synthesizes several genres and it stands out as the album’s best song. The melody is straight indie-pop, but Johnson’s band brings a psychedelic edge, complete with rootless guitar solos and a foundation built on layers of electric sound. The lyrics alternate between the wistful (“You were all in the world that I had”) and the cryptic (“I miss you my unusual friend”), but the song is delivered with such earnest verve that it doesn’t threaten the album’s feel-good ethos.
“Singing Joy to the World” is the one track that is unavoidably deflating. Taken on its own merit, the tale of unrequited love is Johnson’s most ambitious narrative, and in another context the song might actually work. Instead he excises the band and slows the album down to deliver lines like, “She never loved him back / It wasn’t even close.” The whole thing is just depressing, and the album never really recovers. Three songs follow “Singing Joy to the World,” and they’re decent enough, but they mostly amble around and the blissful momentum of the album’s first half seems like a distant memory.
“The Ruminant Band” has more than its share of fun, upbeat songs that are worth repeated listens; unfortunately the pacing limits the record from reaching its full potential. Still, it’s good to hear the Fruit Bats back making music, especially as long as the hits outnumber the misses.