There's a darkness hovering around these songs, and if they still ride on the bright tone of Eric Johnson's voice, they are unafraid to let clouds cover that shine from time to time.
Perhaps it is unfair that Eric Johnson and his band Fruit Bats continue to get overshadowed by other Sub Pop bands -- before it was the Shins (whom he played with) and now it's Fleet Foxes -- or maybe it's just further evidence of the arbitrary nature of buzz and popularity. Either way, the band's music hasn't suffered over its ten-year run. Fruit Bats' last record, 2009's The Ruminant Band was their best to date, a perfect distillation of their folky, sunburst sound. It was as much classic rock as it was modern pop, and Johnson's ever-detailed lyrics began to dig deeper into more intricate narratives.
If that album was about reminiscing about the past, then Tripper is very much about seizing the moment. Beginning with a chance encounter with the title character on the opening track, "Tony the Tripper", the album weaves a narrative of people trying to get away, or trying to find a new home, or just trying to get lost between those two poles. Johnson has always had this sort of wanderlust on his mind, but previous records found that wandering happening more in the head, in people trying to change their perception more than their place. Tripper is an album with a landscape and propulsion. It moves forward: sometimes ambling, sometimes stopping to take stock, but always heading to the next thing.
As a next step itself in the band's discography, Tripper is out on its own. At its base, it continues the dusty AM-gold vibe the other records achieved, but Johnson -- who has of late begun to work on film scores -- pushes himself to incorporate new layers on the record. After the band recorded all its parts, Eric Johnson holed up with producer Thom Monahan and began messing with synthesizers, adding less organic elements to mix up the textures. The resulting record, after its four warm-sounding predecessors, sounds decidedly cool. There's a darkness hovering around these songs, and if they still ride on the bright tones of Johnson's voice, they are unafraid to let clouds cover the shine from time to time.
These new layers also make for songs that vary wildly in sound, so that the album is as adrift sonically as it is thematically. "So Long", which may have been an acoustic chugger if Johnson wrote it a few years back, is a spacey dream-pop number, with cascading harps and airy effects swirling around. "Dolly" rides on a thin guitar riff and pump organ, and the space between the two makes the otherwise ultra-catchy tune a bit unsettling.
Johnson's new arrangement tricks also nicely complicate otherwise breezy numbers. "You're Too Weird" -- the album's lead single -- is a perfectly solid pop song. Guitars glide and Johnson's high keen sways over the track, but it’s the ragged guitar solo in the middle and the ever-so-faint synths forcing their way into the mix that make the song stick. Similarly, "Heart Like an Orange" is great -- a classic story of a person searching for feeling in a cold town -- but the layers of guitar and keys that bleat and buzz over the song's smooth melody hint nicely at those troublesome surroundings, which makes Johnson's yearning voice all the more affecting.
The best departure here, though, comes in the six-minute "The Banishment Song". What starts with simple finger picking blooms into a spacious ballad, with Johnson taking on a soulful and wounded falsetto. Pianos rise and fall, shadowed closely by hollow-sounding organs, and handclaps carry the percussion load, while Johnson plaintively leaves that past behind. "You're no longer welcome here," he snaps out to start the song, and things get no more cordial from there. As the rest of Tripper sees people trying to find a new path, this song is about closing one specific one off. "There ain't no other way, we're never ever, ever coming back," he insists at the song's close, and the handclaps stop, the pulse that kept this past alive ends. It's a surprisingly dark turn for Johnson, but it is executed beautifully and is not only the best song here, but one of the best in the Fruit Bats' catalog.
The end of Tripper may overplay Johnson's new hand a bit, though. The instrumental interlude "The Fen" does little but let us recover from the beauty of "The Banishment Song", and "Wild Honey" may be heartfelt, but it feels like it's all added layers and not enough foundation. The album ends with the solid "Picture of a Bird", which feels most like an older tune from the band, with only slight synth flourishes -- see Mouthfuls for further evidence -- but maybe this looping back around is a fitting end to this document on wanderlust. In the end, we can't get away from ourselves; we can only change so much. Lucky for us, though, Johnson has changed just enough on Tripper and he has remembered to bring the best bits of his musical vision along for the ride. You'll hear more about Fleet Foxes in 2011, surely, but that doesn't mean you're not missing out if you overlook this album.