Eric D. Johnson’s debut album under the Fruit Bats moniker, Echolocution, was released at a fortuitous time—at least in terms of the fickle inclinations of the quote-unquote indie rock community. In the early 2000s, many people listening to and critically analyzing independent music took warmly to various modern interpretations of folk music, and as a result, many artists that fit into this rather nebulous spectrum—Iron & Wine, Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, The Shins, Joanna Newsom, et al—found themselves selling goodly amounts of records and concert tickets. We bandied about terms such as “freak folk” as if they were going to stick around, while the artists with staying power actually did.
Echolocution was released in 2001, and unlike some of his peers, Johnson wouldn’t flesh out his sound much (Iron & Wine, Banhart), go in weird directions that polarize his fan base (Stevens, Newsom) or find himself distracted by side projects and band-member drama (The Shins). Instead, he plugged along in the ensuing decade, releasing a handful of pleasantly melodic records on a nice-sized, well-respected label (Sub Pop) and was a sideman in like-minded bands Vetiver, Califone, and, yep, The Shins. Presumably that latter fact—along with scattered soundtrack work—is how Johnson pays the bills without playing theatres.
Which brings us to Tripper, the predictably lovely, easy-on-the-ears fifth Fruit Bats long player. The Chicago music veteran set up shop in Los Angeles with producer Thom Monahan (Vetiver, Banhart, Pernice Brothers) and a full band to lay down Tripper’s tracks, and frankly, the result is not far flung from much of his catalog. Gentle woo-woo’s (“Tangie Ray”) evoke James Mercer & Co. and fingerpicked acoustics (“The Banishment Song”) bring to mind the bearded Beam. Tasteful rollickers (“You’re Too Weird”) beg the listener to sway along and welcome flourishes like a smattering of organ flare (“Dolly”) pop up here and there to keep things from getting too rote. It’s all very familiar and nice, nothing too radical, and the kind of stuff that gets lapped up and lambasted in equal measure, depending on who’s dispensing the feedback. But really, what did you expect?