Eric D. Johnson, the singer-songwriter behind Fruit Bats, is on a roll. Despite ostensibly adverse conditions of the pandemic, he has released five albums since 2019 under the Fruit Bats moniker, including the feted duo Gold Past Life (2019) and The Pet Parade (2021), plus an improbable tribute album in 2020 covering the entirety of the Smashing Pumpkins‘ Siamese Dream (1993). A two-disc, retrospective collection, Sometimes a Cloud Is Just a Cloud: Slow Growers, Sleeper Hits and Lost Songs (2001-2021) was released in 2022. Not least, Johnson has been a core member of Bonny Light Horseman. Their self-titled debut appeared in 2020 and was subsequently nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Folk Album. Their second LP, Rolling Golden Holy, soon followed in 2022.
A River Running to Your Heart comes amidst (or in the wake?) this prolific period. It sounds like something of a respite after a time of high productivity, not that Fruit Bats has ever sought to harsh your mellow. Johnson started Fruit Bats in 1997, and his project belonged to a new wave of millennium and post-millennium musical artists that returned to and restored the folk-rock tradition in different ways, including Okkervil River, Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, and the Head and the Heart. Johnson additionally spent sabbatical time as a member of the Shins with James Mercer. As a result, you can hear fragments of the dB’s, NRBQ, the Schramms, the folk side of the Clean, and early Yo La Tengo (circa 1990’s Fakebook), among other reference points, across the career of Fruit Bats and amidst this broader trend.
Johnson’s new LP is decisively an LA album. Though the geography in A River Running to Your Heart ventures further afield to places like Tacoma, Washington, and elsewhere, the worldview at the center is in southern California. The album cover, with its overexposed palm trees, hints as much. The LP’s standout track, “Waking Up in Los Angeles”, splits the difference between Joni Mitchell and Aimee Mann, conjuring an updated Laurel Canyon vibe.
Consisting of 11 tracks, A River Running to Your Heart sustains this type of warmth and easy nostalgia and has an amiability that recalls Todd Rundgren in Something/Anything? (1972). “See the World by Night” has a Carly Simon bounce. “Sick of This Feeling” has a crowd-pleasing Bee Gees chorus, which will make you break into a smile when it comes in. “Gold Past Life” from the Fruit Bats’ album of the same name similarly drew from the tricky, signature harmonies of the Australian disco-era band of brothers. Meanwhile, “The Deep Well” elicits the pop style of Karen Carpenter and Simon once more.
However, A River Running to Your Heart is not solely an exercise in 1970s golden hour wistfulness. The 1980s and after get their due. Following the instrumental opener “Dim North Star”, the second track, “Rushin’ River Valley”, has a fast beat and cheerful guitar reminiscent of the Grateful Dead‘s late pop moment “Touch of Grey” from 1987. Johnson is a noted fan of the Dead. “It All Comes Back” possesses an atmospheric dream pop quality that resembles what the Red House Painters used to do in their prime, as well as Suzanne Vega circa Days of Open Hand (1990). The acoustic “We Used to Live Here” approximates the backyard folk energy of the Lumineers. One can imagine the Shins-like song “Tacoma” soundtracking the closing credits of the next Mike Mills film. It has a sociable 1980s new wave sound, appropriately muted to suit the mood.
A River Running to Your Heart comes across as Sunday morning music. It doesn’t push you very hard after a long night out and makes you feel good. Johnson’s soft vocal delivery, which is situated somewhere between Gram Parsons, Rufus Wainwright, and Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian, has a restorative quality. If there is a fault to be found, it is that the album takes its time building momentum. Like the title metaphor, a River Running to Your Heart wanders a bit. Two instrumentals, the opener “Dim North Star”, which sets the tone, and “Meridian”, the penultimate track, contribute to this feeling of peregrination. Taken together, the songs often move at an insouciant pace but are not drawn out. Some are over before you know it. Indeed, some feel a little incomplete, like the closer “Jesus Tap Dancing Christ (It’s Good to Be Home)”. You want that melody to keep going.
At his best, Johnson taps into the SoCal world and song tradition of Mitchell, Mann, and Warren Zevon. This album has a few of these moments. Neither breakthrough nor misstep, A River Running to Your Heart continues the spirit of quiet experimentation for which Fruit Bats are known.