Fruit Bats - Tripper
Release Date: August 2, 2011
Record Label: Sub Pop
As folk music goes, generally less is more and everything gets better with age. Never has this been more true than on the Fruit Bats new album Tripper. Begun in 1997, the brain behind the operation is Eric Johnson. Their first record Mouthfuls (2003) was a spacey folk-rock record which emerged at the tail end of alt-country as outfits like the equally spaced-out Grandaddy took their unique blend of folk rock to keyboards and computers. While Grandaddy's Software Slump was a trancey space odyssey, Mouthfuls played it close to the vest with pop songs infused with folk instrumentation as well as the blips and bleeps of keyboards. The standout track from that record, "When U Love Somebody," was a poppy cryptic love ballad about decomposition and loving someone, almost literally, to pieces.
Coming back to a band after a prolonged absence is a tricky thing. I bought Mouthfuls back in 2003 and still remember spinning it on my first trip through Kentucky's beautiful Red River Gorge. Tripper sounds almost like a different band altogether, Johnson's nasal delivery notwithstanding. While Mouthfuls felt full of bombast and splendor in big sounds, Tripper is gloriously understated. The songs reveal themselves in the most subtle moments playing with pop sensibility rather than relying on it.
Opener "Tony the Tripper" is a single guitar line with a feedbacked lead over it, playfully wrapping around the melody over and over again. It feels like something that a more surreal M. Ward would write. "Tangie and Ray" sounds like the most straightforward folk-rock song on the record. But, rather than blow you away, Johnson and co. slowly build layers upon one another. The result is a stunningly unpretentious ballad about a couple that, you guessed it, aren't going home again.
Like John Vanderslice's Romanian Names, the Fruit Bats' Tripper is a beautiful headphones album. I'm not talking earbuds, but full on huge headphones. It's a symphony of sounds that seem to creep in all over the place. For these days of long sunlight creeping into autumn, Tripper is a glorious record full of understated folk-pop. Weaving melody upon melody, don't be surprised to find yourself thinking and returning to this album again and again.