City Paper is not for tourists
In the 1972 Kris Kristofferson flick Cisco Pike, the great border rock poet Doug Sahm distinguishes his rootsy style of music from the prevailing psychedelic sounds of the day: “I’m a simple cat, man. I like that simple stuff, man. I mean, you know where the groove is at. That California thing, don’t get it—that far-out-in-space music.” Sahm then punctuates his argument with a caffeinated, mouth-twanged interpretation of a country, folk-guitar riff. It’s a safe bet that Eric D. Johnson, primary songwriter for the Seattle-based quintet Fruit Bats, would enthusiastically place his band in the “simple stuff” category. On “Singing Joy to the World,” from the group’s new album, The Ruminant Band, Johnson tells the tender tale of a romance between an aging sad sack and the “waitress at the Mexican place where he’d left his keys.” Johnson anchors the plaintive song about the love affair, which blossoms at a Three Dog Night concert only to wilt soon thereafter, with a few cynical lines: “She never loved him back/It wasn’t even close/But he was fine with just pretend.” Still, the Fruit Bats aren’t roots-music purists by any means. In fact, the band has moved slightly away from its country rock origins and toward more commercial pop structures. The Ruminant Band is a perfect modern example of afternoon rock, a subgenre of soft rock my buddies and I so named because of its sunlit, radio-friendly melodies and unhurried pace. Prime purveyors of vintage afternoon rock include Gerry Rafferty, Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac, and Elton John. Mac’s influence on Fruit Bats is most noticeable during the opening acoustic riff of the title track, and the band evokes John most vividly on “Feather Bed,” although their approach is a little more Brown Dirt Cowboy than Captain Fantastic. The song, with its lead barrelhouse piano, mellow delivery and lines like “I could be the lump of sugar in your tea,” could easily be a subdued Scissor Sisters B-side. Johnson’s vocals are as strained and high-register as those of James Mercer, frontman of the Shins, a band he recently joined. The similarity between the two bands is undeniable, but the Fruit Bats have a more vintage AM Gold sound, as evident in the built-in vinyl hiss and soulful organ accompaniments on the sedate closer, “Flamingo.” And the Stones-y countrified chorus on “Tegucigalpa” exemplifies a band that is content to create easygoing songs with unashamed nods to the past. The Fruit Bats never fly too high—they know that a more grounded approach is where it’s at.