Fruit Bats – Tripper

written by: August 17, 2011
Release Date: August 2, 2011


As “the folk artist” moves a million ways in every direction, the title no sooner reinvents itself than sheds its previous traits—Sub Pop Records has been smack dab in the middle of it all. With the likes of The Shins, Fleet Foxes and Iron & Wine to its name, it would be almost impossible for the label not to have some sway on the genre. Then there are smaller forces. Fruit Bats, the pseudonym of erstwhile Chicagoan Eric D. Johnson, has been quietly making records of some note for a decade.

Known previously for his rootsy fingerpicking and soulful, vulnerable falsetto, Johnson has taken a step forward with his latest. Tripper is a thoughtful, narrative piece full of lush soundscapes. According to Sub Pop’s website, the album is built around an imagined road trip between Johnson and a hobo acquaintance he met once on a train—the thinker and the outlaw. It’s pretty clear from the title track, a sort of conversation between the two, that this is an album for the transient. But it’s not just for those on the move, “Heart Like An Orange,” is a mellow ballad about being the new kid in a Floridian town, complete with all the angst, the bashfulness and the mistakes.

This one is worth a listen if only because it’s something new. Tripper was first recorded with the band in studio but was closely followed by Johnson thoroughly going over the recordings with producer Thom Monahan adding more synthetic elements, organs and digital sounds. This doesn’t mean Johnson has abandoned fingerpicking altogether, the album ends with “Picture of a Bird,” classic Fruit Bats sound. The tape echo on his microphone, (see “Tangie and Ray,” or “Shivering Fawn”) gives a vinyl-like warmth and charming old-timey feel to the record.

The crown jewel of the work might be “The Banishment Song,” a rambling but powerful ballad, which demonstrates something slightly different from the artist, a near six-minute story about an exile who’s sent from a place of rule and order to a “fucked-up world,” at least until the banisher gets cold feet himself: “I’m gonna roll with you.” Opening with small taps, bird sounds and lo-fi acoustic picking, it eventually builds into a droning, piano-filled heartache complete with handclaps. It seems contrived but with such little effort to conceal it, listeners must think Johnson wants you to know it.

Fruit Bats’ decisions are not always toward the indie, nor are they the pop-sensible, “Dolly” seems a ready-made hit with its bopping guitar riff and playful lyricism but it’s completely overwhelmed by the blasting organ pipes.

Balance is something Tripper foregoes in favor of layering. At times his words seem lost in the wall of sound. Maybe unintentionally, it mimics the voices of the characters in the album drowned out by failure, repression and their own ambivalence.

With its itchy feet and wounded heart, the overwhelming arch of Tripper seems to be one of self-discovery. And though he’s been in the business a while, Eric Johnson still comes off as a wide-eyed kid looking to make something that matters to him, critics and non-listeners be damned.

Fruit Bats – Tripper Tracklist:

  1. “Tony the Tripper”
  2. “So Long”
  3. “Tangie and Ray”
  4. “Shivering Fawn”
  5. “You’re Too Weird”
  6. “Heart Like and Orange”
  7. “Dolly”
  8. “The Banishment Song”
  9. “The Fen”
  10. “Wild Honey”
  11. “Picture of a Bird”