Being a fan of the Fruit Bats is a wonderfully stress free affair. The band demands very little from the listener and is heavy on congenial reward. Sure, lead Fruit Bat Eric Johnson likes to pepper his lyrics with inscrutable lines from time to time, but by and large, Johnson’s happy to sell nature-informed testaments to rustic optimism. You’re free to give serious consideration to these lyrics, or you can just enjoy the warm and generous music, which is largely informed by a healthy devotion to classic, sunny folk melodies. At the same time, the Fruit Bats have rarely seemed like the type of band that would inspire slavish fandom. They play thoroughly above average songs that, while unquestionably enjoyable, attempt little in the way of sonic invention. Fortunately, the Fruit Bats appear to be feeling slightly more adventurous on their latest long player, The Ruminant Band.
For starters, the Fruit Bats have finally demonstrated a tendency towards rollicking; this much is evident right up front. The one-two combo of “Primitive Man” and “The Ruminant Band” alone solidifies the Fruit Bats’ latest as the most rambunctious of their career. Frankly, it’s nice to hear it in them. Their previous best, 2003’s Mouthfuls, is a largely straightforward slice of instrumentally basic, pastoral summer music, the sort of music that’s pleasant, but just as easy to ignore. The Ruminant Band does not allow for such complacency in its early moments. Of course, even if this album is the Fruit Bats at their most vigorous, this is still music you could comfortably played in front of your grandparents. Johnson’s voice remains as inoffensive as ever, somehow finding the charming side of high-pitched and tame. Additionally, his focus has shifted slightly, having evidently chosen to cut a great deal of the folk out of folk-pop, their previous genre of choice. The Ruminant Band seems to mostly be a love letter to AM pop, and the Fruit Bats wear it well. Even the somewhat garbled vocals of “Being On Our Own” can’t take the shine off of its sprightly bounce.
What’s more, it’s clear that the Fruit Bats are feeling as virtuosic as ever, which is somewhat faint praise. Good as Mouthfuls is, a first year guitar player could easily navigate it’s rudimentary and languid chord changes. “The Ruminant Band” contains a few impressive guitar runs that wouldn’t be out of place in a Ted Leo song, and like Ted Leo, the Fruit Bats position these moments carefully, avoiding unbecoming ostentation.
Naturally, there’s always room in the world of the Fruit Bats for at least some simple folk. It may be less of a presence than ever, but the Fruit Bats make the most of it. “Beautiful Morning Light” provides a nice bridge into the boisterous communal racket of “The Hobo Girl,” and “Singing Joy To The World” is a pretty late-album melancholic respite. The Fruit Bats seem to have learned that these low-key moments are most effective as links between more energetic moments and tension diffusers.
Even if the Fruit Bats are venturing outside of their comfort zone and making marked improvements in terms of song structure and variety on The Ruminant Band, there are certain problems with the Fruit Bats that are unlikely to change. Admirable and unconventional as it may be to leisurely champion hopefulness in a market that rewards bleak urgency, the Fruit Bats inability to assert themselves keeps their music from ever feeling truly consequential. But no matter, someone has to make a soundtrack for sitting on the porch on an August afternoon, and there are few candidates as willing and able as the Fruit Bats.