Review Summary: Two decades in, Fruit Bats’ strongest and most cohesive record
Fruit Bats are a band with a low profile, even after twenty years in existence, which belies their connections to more prominent groups in the indie scene. Not only did frontman Eric D. Johnson participate in last year’s indie supergroup effort Bonny Light Horseman, he’s also periodically been a member of The Shins. In terms of sound, Fruit Bats’ earlier efforts can easily be characterized as revivalist, tempering familiar sounds from the Beatles and various folk rock/country rock acts from the 60s and 70s (think The Byrds, The Allman Brothers, and the Grateful Dead) into an indie sheen, but their later works feel a bit more modern, straddling the narrow lines which differentiate indie rock, indie folk, and indie pop. Throughout their career, the hallmarks of the band have been catchy, easy-going folk melodies and Johnson’s distinctive but pleasing vocals. In terms of quality, the band has always been enjoyable but never quite managed to craft a full album which approaches excellence.
The Pet Parade is Fruit Bats’ eighth LP and their first effort in two years. The cover art seems to be appropriate here, the scene depicted able to convey both isolation and a peaceful mood, very much setting the album’s tone. There’s no question that the ongoing pandemic and the resulting changes to daily life have strongly impacted the lyrical themes and musical approach of this effort. Indeed, all the album’s eleven tracks were recorded with each band member in a separate location due to the pandemic.
Ultimately, The Pet Parade feels like Fruit Bats have tapped into a previously unforeseen font of creativity. While the songs here are primarily catchy, immediately accessible indie/folk tunes like the band has always been known for, there is a sense of depth and album cohesion the band has not previously produced. The opening title track may well be the best song ever crafted under the Fruit Bats’ moniker, and very much feels distinct from their usual output. A nearly seven minute tune with an epic feel, “The Pet Parade” lays the groundwork for a well-crafted album through a mellow indie/folk backdrop and abstract but nonetheless touching lyrics. The album’s opening lines could not be better stated than “hello from in here to all you out there, it feels like it’s been years”. It is an inviting stanza under any circumstance, but given the present state of the world the potency is only increased. The second track, “Cub Pilot” does nothing to disappoint either with its nostalgic lyrics, while it does move decisively back towards the Fruit Bats’ traditional style with its shorter length and more down-to-earth aesthetic. The first two songs are some of the standouts here, but the rest of the album remains consistent, from the irresistible “The Balcony”, with its chorus lamenting that “you’re alone again as usual” to the harder-rocking “Holy Rose”, which tackles the changing climate and the resulting devastation of massive fires on the US West Coast. Closer “Complete” wraps it all up with its sad ditty concluding in the exhortation “you will be complete, I decree it so”. While theatrical and quite corny in less deft hands, Fruit Bats pull it off with a masterful album full of bittersweet moments but also human warmth and ensuing positivity.
“These days it’s hard to tell a dream from a memory” sings Johnson in the slow and wistful second-half tune “All In One Go”, another brilliant line which captures the essence of the frustration and detachment so many feel around the world right now, isolated from friends and family. Fortunately for those of us who will listen, The Pet Parade provides a welcome respite. Fruit Bats don’t sugarcoat any of the struggles of our current times here, but they express hopefulness nonetheless. The Pet Parade is the sonic equivalent of a comfortable chair and a warm blanket, but better yet it reminds us that the refreshing weather of spring is right around the corner.