Review Summary: With The Ruminant Band, the Fruit Bats have again created a record of many disparate angles, Johnson’s viewpoint on the past forty years of music chewed and re-chewed into a distinctly Fruit Bats release.
Over the course of a decade, Eric Johnson has lead the Fruit Bats through musical terrain both poppy and experimental, mixing Americana folk with bubbly indie, alt-country with melodic chamber-pop. With their fourth release, The Ruminant Band, Johnson & Co. continue to live up to their reputation as musical blacksmiths and the title itself. A ruminant is a mammal with four stomachs, giving it the ability to digest and re-digest food to extract the maximum amount of nutrients from a single bite, and with The Ruminant Band, the Fruit Bats have again created a record of many disparate angles, Johnson’s viewpoint on the past forty years of music chewed and re-chewed into a distinctly Fruit Bats release.
Johnson has always been a hard talent to pin down, but his penchant for combining many different styles into a seamless whole remains intact. It’s been four years since the Fruit Bats’ last, but those four years (four stomachs, anyone?), which have had Johnson become a member of the Shins and the Fruit Bats fall by the wayside, seem to have only ignited Johnson’s creativity further. The Ruminant Band runs the gamut from classic rock ‘n roll in the Neil Young vein to light summer pop reminiscent of Elephant 6 groups, and while nothing here is mind-blowingly original or particularly revolutionary, it is a fresh, solid collection of intimate alternative.
Opener “Primitive Man” stomps along a ‘70s rock groove and a completely unfettered solo, while guitars ring and twang like the Allman Brothers on the titular track and the country-fried, fuzzed-out “My Unusual Friend.” Johnson’s vocals, which call to mind a nasally mix between the Minus 5’s Scott McCaughey and Kevin Barnes with a more country bent, stay in a higher register for most of the time here. His rather twee, always emotive pipes make a hokey chorus like “I’ll never snow on your parade / I’ll never bring a cloudy day” on the excellent “Tegucigalpa” an earnest promise rather than a corny sentiment, and stand in perfect contrast to the rugged, full-bodied instrumentation on display throughout.
The album peaks in the middle, beginning with the wistful acoustic strummer “Beautiful Morning Light,” which would have sounded perfectly at home on Fleet Foxes’ debut. “The Hobo Girl” and “Being On Our Own” are the record’s highlight, the first rollicking along a honky-tonk piano melody and a campfire sing-a-long chorus, while the latter is a jaunty pedal-steel exercise with a syncopated barroom piano backbeat.
The Ruminant Band is a collection that could be looked at closely, noting the intricate licks and gospel shading of “Feather Bed,” the soft carnival synthesizers on closer shuffling closer “Flamingo,” or the way Johnson’s vocals occasionally bend towards the darker in lyrics like those on “Singing Joy To The World.” But it’s best looked at as a summer album, one that rides along an open, instinctively American highway into a future uncertain, but one defiantly promising and undoubtedly optimistic. In its celebration of music past and present, from the rangy guitars and pounding, Fleetwood Mac-esque piano riffs to Johnson’s undeniable modern pop sensibilities and jangly, sun-soaked melodicism, The Ruminant Band is a record that without a doubt recycles, but makes sure to waste nothing in doing so.