Sub Pop’s Eric D Johnson has been building a small but steady following as well as a fine body of work since Echolocation, his 2001 debut album under his Fruit Bats moniker.
Tripper, his fifth album as Fruit Bats, is designed to be like a road trip and bring out the best of his work as a solo artist and with a full band (those he has worked with include The Shins and Vetiver).
With production by Thom Monahan, who is best known for his work with Vetiver, Devendra Banhart and the Pernice Brothers, the end result is mixed.
The full band tracks, which feature Fruit Bats regulars Sam Wagster, Ron Lewis and Graeme Gibson, end up being the best and are gathered in the first two thirds of the album. Highlights include the Pernice Brothers-esque country twang of ‘Shivering Fawn’ and the early 1970s John Lennon sounding second track ‘So Long’, which is resplendent with harps.
Obvious single ‘You’re Too Weird’ is another great track but ‘Tangie and Ray’ is my standout, bringing out Johnson’s great rock vocals to full effect. It could have been written any time from the late 1960s onwards. It is this track more than any others where I realised who Johnson reminds me of. None other than Gaz Coombs from Supergrass. In fact the whole production on these tracks on the first two thirds of the album is reminiscent of much of Supergrass’ work. A kind of folk, country Supergrass is the end effect and one I like.
Unfortunately not all the album keeps up this high standard. By track eight ‘Banishment song’ things become more solitary for Johnson on this road trip. The band move on leaving Johnson and Monahan in control and things become more lonely. As a result this slowest track on the album with its folk guitar intro and piano body jolts a little with the feel good vibe on the opening half. The orchestral instrumental ‘The Fen’ offers little improvement.
The jury is out on track ten ‘Wild Honey’, which is mainly Johnson, piano and subtle guitar. I have a nagging feeling that this is a grower and may become my favourite over time.
Final track ‘Picture of a Bird’ picks things up a little. Still among the solitary tracks, but it crucially has a great, almost Van Morrison-esque hook to keep my interest.
Despite the dip towards the end this is overall a fine album showcasing Johnson’s great voice and offering a largely successful mix of folk, rock and ballads.
Given the aim is to recreate a road trip and a sense of being increasingly alone and further from home, it is perhaps no surprise that the opening segment of his journey, full of hope and excitement, is more appealing than the final, lonely third.
by Joe Lepper