On The Ruminant Band, Fruit Bats explore more musical tangents and send their lovelorn tales down new paths. They may be just as dusty as the old paths, but it's new dust, one that kicks up thicker clouds as the band stomps along.
Fruit Bats' sound -- at its most potent and tuneful on 2003's Mouthfuls -- has always been tightly constructed. Melodies are sharp, even as the instruments coat songs in warm haze. Eric Johnson's vocals are honeyed and swaying, but always coming at you with direct emotions, often unabashedly basking in the sun, rather than trudging through the mud of overt sadness. It's a contained sound, but never one that seemed to be lacking something.
At least until now. The Ruminant Band, the band's fourth album, finds them striking out on new, more ambitious roads. Roads that, now looking back, were always at the fringe of their folk-pop and often left unexplored. It's not that this is a new sound they're making -- much of this record, unsurprisingly, revels in early '70s SoCal bliss and other alt-country permutations. But what they are doing here is deepening their sound, and expanding it by incorporating more classic rock stuff. More guitar rundowns and solos, subtle shifts in tempo, dabbles in piano-pop, and jangly group singalongs. It's a varied and rich set, and the best from a band that has been pretty good all along.
It's hard not to hear Neil Young in the guitar on standout "Primitive Man", and if "My Unusual Friend" popped up on the stereo at a friend's party, while you were bopping along you'd swear you were hearing a Fleetwood Mac deep cut and not something from 2009. And while these dips into the past aren't tries at revivalism, they sure are overt. Heck, Johnson openly references Three Dog Night on "Singing Joy to the World". But what all this heavy borrowing does is to plug Fruit Bats into a tradition. They are exploring moments in American music, mining them for their own voice on The Ruminant Band. And while, admittedly, the pieces they explore are already well-combed over by now, Johnson and company still manage to make a fresh sound here.
They succeed particularly because they don't fall into the trap of telling the same stories as their forefathers. Johnson has always had a distinct lyrical voice -- part cultural reference, part hopeless romanticism, all personal experience -- and he continues to peel away layers and get at the heart of what he wants to say. The Ruminant Band deals often with either moving out of the cold, or accepting that it will always be there. On "Tegucigulpa", Johnson's character was born in the titular town on "the only day it ever snowed there", and from there he brings gray skies with him wherever he goes. But for all his trying to escape who he is and what he brings with him, by song's end he returns home from his travels, promising all he encountered, "I'll never snow on your parade".
In other places, the cold surrounds Johnson's narrators, instead of being a part of them. On "Beautiful Morning Light", he invites his lover up into a tree with him to escape the cool world, though they know this isn't escape but a respite, as lines like "In the foggy waning dawn / We breathe frosty air upon" signal that their time in the tree isn't a permanent vacation. And on "Singing Joy to the World", Johnson tells of a touching lover's interlude that comes just before the winter. "It was worth it just to know", Johnson sings at the song's end, "A little warmth before the snow".
And as sunny as their sound is, it's Johnson's ability to exist in this in-between that makes their songs more than simple, blissful pop. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Johnson isn't afraid to approach hope openly -- the last line on this record ends "...'cause everything's gonna be just fine" -- so much so that he sometimes risks being too cute. And that does happen here in very small ways. There are people sharing silly dreams, and mentions of "buckets of love". But where these might throw previous Fruit Bats albums off track, these songs are strong enough to overcome the occasional flub. The noodling guitars on the title track give it a country-rock depth. Piano doesn't float over tracks like it has before, but imbeds itself in great tracks like "Feather Bed", giving them a soulful drive.
The Ruminant Band isn't exactly Johnson and his band hitting their stride -- because they were moving along just fine to begin with -- but it is a clearing away of the few things that held them back. It's an interesting evolution because, in a lot of ways, the only thing they've stripped away is the limitations their folk-pop sound gave them. But with those gone, they explore more musical tangents and send their lovelorn, romantic tales down new paths. They may be just as dusty as the old paths, but it's new dust, one that kicks up thicker clouds as Fruit Bats stomp along.