Whenever I listen to the Fruit Bats I always picture frontman Eric Johnson in an overstuffed chair reading Moby Dick, perhaps smoking a pipe, and speculate on what his favorite chapters might be. I’ve narrowed it down to two key passages: the chapter devoted entirely to whale taxonomy and anatomy, and the one where poor Pip is lost overboard in the great expanse of the ocean. Not only have whales and leviathans made several prominent appearances in Fruit Bats songs, but also their latest, Spelled in Bones, sails and floats on the brink of limitless depths—the difference between Pip and Johnson is that the latter revels in the solitude instead of being overwhelmed by it. “There is peace in the belly of the beast / There is no alarm in the least” he croons on the gorgeous “TV Waves” and there’s reason to believe. His voice echoes in the mix as if it was bouncing around in the caverns of a humpback’s tummy, reverberating in the ribs, and all is well.
“You’ve got to have the heart of a lion / ...You’ve got to have the lungs of a whale,” he asserts on the opening track, “Lives of Crime”, administering support to a departing friend/lover as their paths separate. Fans of the Bats’ second record, Mouthfuls, will notice a marked difference in tone and execution right off the, umm… bat. The pop/rock package on “Crime” and elsewhere is at once busier and more compact than earlier, roomier songs like “The Little Acorn” and “Slipping Through the Sensors”, as well as less immediately accessible. Abetted by guitarist Dan Strack and drummer John Byce, Spelled in Bones digs further into Johnson’s fondness for ‘70s songsmiths and production. Gone are Mouthfuls producer Brian Deck’s glassy casements and miles of space, replaced here by a sound more rooted and wood-grained.
“Canyon Girl” features a nervy fuzz-bass held close beneath yearning vocal harmonies before yielding to a middle passage of tinny piano and clucking banjo. “I won’t return to the wind and the cold and the snow again / To the darkest places I have been / Back to the run of the mill again.” The song has an imbedded sense of urgency toward flight that makes it a completely different beast for the Fruit Bats to be running with, almost as if the above-quoted darkness chased these songs out, and this is the exhilarated escape. “Legs of Bees”, an occasional live gem for a few years, is full of kinetic energy—the organs, drums, fast-strummed guitars, and hand-claps speeding almost ahead of Johnson’s strained wails at the song’s climax. But Bones can also go small and delicate. “You hurt your foot roller-skating down by the bay / You lost your voice singing along to ‘Raspberry Beret” is the quirky set-up for the heartfelt clincher of “Earthquake of ‘73”: “So I’ll do my part not to break your heart / And baby, don’t break mine / ‘Cause I adore you and I know for sure / You’re the spark on the sun.” The new-found wordiness here is balanced by a complimentary arrangement that serves the song’s romantic goals with no clutter.
Johnson is nothing if not a romantic at heart, except maybe a naturalist. Okay, definitely a naturalist. And he’s been wise over the course of his first three records to stick with his lyrical and musical obsessions, while at the same time honing, refining, and branching out. If there is a rock scene equivalent to cinema’s so-called “New Sincerity” movement, then Fruit Bats are definitely season ticket holders. The closing track on Bones is “Every Day We Wake Up Is a Beautiful Day” and there isn’t a note played on it that suggests irony, detachment, not the slightest trace of a wink. To borrow Johnson’s words from “Silent Life”, “it could melt a frozen heart if it needs to be so.”