Fruit Bats – The Ruminant Band

Fruit Bats - The Ruminant Band

Fruit Bats - The Ruminant Band

Ruminants are mammals with 4 stomachs who can extract nutrients from grasses and hays that organisms with one stomach cannot. This is done by sending the grasses back to the mouth for more mastication after they have fermented in the first stomach for awhile. The new Fruit Bats album, The Ruminant Band, takes its title from these cud-chewers, and the characterization fits, as the band plays like a bunch of guys who have deeply digested the history of American music, and are regurgitating their results for the listener to chew on. Or something like that.

Fruit Bats has been stretching its core sound ever so slightly through the years, moving from something more intimate to something more full band-oriented. This trend continues on The Ruminant Band, which has jettisoned the electronic accents hanging around the edges of 2003’s Mouthfuls and 2005’s Spelled in Bones, and now includes Nashville lead licks, jaunty barroom piano, pedal steel guitar, Laurel Canyon hooks, and some soul and psych touches. Lead track “Primitive Man” nods to the band’s past at it starts with some chiming, acoustic chords strummed under a harvest moon. But before long, the band start falling into place and the album is lifted from the confines of the campfire to the spaciousness of the concert hall. The next song, title track “The Ruminant Band” begins by cribbing from the BeeGees’ jive talkin’ playbook (albeit with acoustic guitars) and plays out into a countrified jam, as does the piano-pounding “My Unusual Friend”.

These approaches signal a big shift in feel for the band. Their previous work had the aura of sitting around a bonfire with good friends while listening to a talented buddy playing his acoustic guitar and singing songs under the stars. While the band’s music maintains its naturalistic and organic feel from past efforts, here there are more instruments in the mix and a marked use of reverb which distances the music a bit from the listener and makes it feel more professionally executed. Still, this is mainly a difference in execution and not in quality.

Though this sounds like more of a band effort, Eric Johnson still carries this band on his back. His voice has always led the way, its sweetness gaining the listener’s trust while spinning yarns filled with pearls of wisdom and naturalism. His vocals are soaring all over the place on this album, putting in his most confident vocal performance yet. Johnson spends most of his time in a higher register than usual, lending the music a wide-eyed giddiness that keeps the proceedings lively and urgent. He really stretches his melodic chops out on “Tegucigalpa”, a ramblin’ traveler song that wouldn’t lose any of its punch if it was recorded acapella. His “ba-aa-bes” on “The Blessed Breeze” push the song from good fun into blissful territory.

Few artists are savvy enough to use music, lyrics, and singing together to give the listener a good idea of their personality without bashing you over the head with proclamations, screeds, and posturing. Lee Hazlewood, John Cale, Alasdair MacLean (The Clientele), and Travis Morrison (Dismemberment Plan) are all good examples of personalities coming through in the music in a way that compliments the overall effect instead of hijacking it. I would put Eric Johnson in the same league. It’s impossible to listen to Fruit Bats and not be charmed by his happy-go-lucky, live-and-let-live attitude and the major chord brightness of the tunes. The Ruminant Band opens up the Fruit Bats aesthetic and is a welcome addition to both late summer and a terrific discography.

Fruit Bats

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