The Ruminant Band, the Fruit Bats' first album in four years (as well as the first since songwriter Eric Johnson joined former Sub Pop labelmates the Shins a couple years back), is definitely a departure of sorts. Perhaps working with James Mercer has given Johnson more of an inclination toward sunny 60's and 70's pop, or maybe it was his work with the like-minded Vetiver. Or possibly his stepping out of the spotlight a bit to let his band take over the lion's share of the actual performance is responsible. Of course, there's the notion that the man himself opted for such a move - in an interview with Reverb Magazine, Johnson said, "I shouldn’t say I had any strong ideas about how I wanted [The Ruminant Band] to differ from our other records, but I knew that I definitely wanted it to." Whatever the case, the band's trademark lo-fi indie folk sound has definitely diminished in favor of a more Americana approach.
The Ruminant Band, the Fruit Bats' fourth record, is unapologetically rife with 70's references; the introductory guitar, choral harmonization, and even semi-storytelling in the title track scream Allman Brothers; Being On Your Own suggests a John Lennon-esque take on alt-country (Johnson even sounds a little like Lennon on the closer Flamingos); Led Zeppelin's lighter side comes across quite strong in the opener Primitive Man, and so on.
This isn't to call the Fruit Bats' latest effort uninspired; while the style is somewhat trite, the execution is outstanding. Eric Johnson is a very sharp songwriter, and his talented band provides top-knotch support. Beautiful Morning Light is a delightful slice of alt-country, with sublimely minimal background layering and sweet, convincing lyrics. My Unusual Friend and Singing Joy to the World cover more familiar territory, with the former's upbeat juxtaposed guitar and piano along with the latter's sad story of a Three Dog Night concert (they didn't play Old Fashioned Love Song, the bastards) carried across a lonesome acoustic guitar and emotive vocals.
While well constructed and very ably performed, the songs here are missing a certain something; in the moment, they sound wonderful and engaging, but they don't stick, and after listening to them exact chord changes and vocal patterns fade from memory. The most damning quality is that there is simply nothing here as deeply affecting as Spelled In Bones' The Earthquake of '73, or Rainbow Sign and Slipping Through the Sensors from Mouthfuls. The Ruminant Band lacks any truly striking highlights, but that is not to say that it isn't a decidedly solid effort. Eric Johnson and co. are paying tribute to their favorite artists of the era, and ultimately experimenting rather than just cranking out more of the same. Artistically speaking, this might be the better move for a ten year old band, but it doesn't make for listening as satisfying as their earlier work has yielded.