Eric D Johnson, aka Fruit Bats, has been releasing the most warmly wonderful folk-rock cosmic-americana for the past 20 years and marks that anniversary with the release of glorious new album, The Pet Parade, out on Merge.
If you’re a fan of Johnson’s richly melodic tunes – and we sure are – then you will be right at home here with The Pet Parade which, despite the troubling times in which it released, rings a hopeful bell in sonic terms. I’m not sure that Johnson knows how to do anything other than write songs with the hookiest of hooks. This is just the most gorgeously delicious album and Johnson put’s every foot right.
The album kicks off with the title track and the lovely, gentle introduction becomes something more substantial in Johnson’s hands. Simple chords can sounds more complex and straightforward instrumentation seems to take on a more epic sweep. I always think he has found some secret code or maybe magic formula to make the parts of his tunes add up to way more than their sum.
‘Cub Pilot’ is more of the same – Johnson’s deft songwriting and instrumentation and, of course, his lovely vocals adding texture and pulling and shaping the song as it moves along. ‘Discovering’ feigns simplicity as a standard acoustic number but then slowly adds elements to lift it up and up and up. Delightful chord progressions and then some pedal steel near the end give it a lushness that is just too hard to resist, not that I wanted to of course.
‘The Balcony’ was released as a single and is a much pacier number; it’s hard not to want to get up and dance to this one. Johnson’s vocals on this, in particular, are wonderful. It really is like another instrument. The addition of accordion gives the song a different texture – acting like a palate cleanser so that when you get back to Johnson’s wonderful vocals and melodies you can hear them more clearly again.
‘Here For Now, For You’ is a much more stripped down, jazzy, almost improvised sounding tune, until after about a minute when a huge cymbal crash marks the transition into an almost different song before it settles back into the soft, lilting sound it started with.
‘On The Avalon Stairs’ is a wonderful tune. The mix on this is just great. There is a bass pushed just slightly forward – it’s not bassy mind – but just enough to notice. It’s the the shimmering keys though that are phenomenal; they are just sublime. Then when you think it can’t sound any better, there’s the introduction of a crunching guitar that whips the sounds into a swirling maelstrom of gorgeousness. Utterly fantastic stuff from the band.
‘Eagles Below Us’ is the sound of someone flying high and observing the world below. It might be the sound of someone so in love and so content that they feel like they are observing the rest of the world from their happiness.
When ‘Holy Rose’ gets going, it sounds like it could be a Bond Theme – it’s got a really cinematic scope. I love the big fuzzy overdriven guitar that rips through the middle of the track. It is a song full of purpose, and it keeps building and building as if it’s physically alive and growing and has it’s own intent. ‘All In One Go’ is a respite from that intent – a much more wistful and relaxed number.
Penultimate track, ‘Gullwing Doors’, creates the imagery of someone standing and raising their arms – looking out to a sunrise or sunset it seemed to me – like the aforementioned gullwing doors. The song cycles and layers to create an epic sound which is contrast to final ‘Complete’, which is just Johnson and his guitar and nothing else but it is still fantastically compelling.
The album was written by Johnson and produced by Josh Kaufman, Johnson’s bandmate in the 2021 Grammy-nominated Bonny Light Horseman. Joining him are drummers Brian Kantor, Joe Russo and Matt Barrick (The Walkmen, Fleet Foxes, Muzz); singer-songwriter Johanna Samuels; pianist Thomas Bartlett, who’s worked with Sufjan Stevens; and fiddler Jim Becker, of the excellent Califone and Iron & Wine.
Obviously, due to Covid, Johnson and co had to self-record their parts in bedrooms and home studios across America but you’d never guess. This sounds like a perfect pre-Covid Fruit Bats album. Johnson says: “The songs have enough intimacy that it doesn’t sound like it was made a million miles away.”
If you love Fruit Bats’ music as much as I do then you are going to love The Pet Parade. If you don’t know Fruit Bats’ music, then where have you been? Stop what you’re doing right now and get this album on the real or virtual turntable. Then go back and listen to the awesome albums they have put out over the past 20 years. You can thank me later.