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Fruit Bats: The Pet Parade

Eric D. Johnson has grown comfortable with Fruit Bats. Not stagnant, but comfortable. Variations to the formula came and went, from Mouthfuls with its tinges of electronic influences to Tripper in its vast and spacious scope. The band’s latest, The Pet Parade is a sunbaked retreat from these escapades.

This time around, Johnson has enlisted folk music veteran and now-Bonny Light Horseman bandmate Josh Kaufman to craft the soundtrack to a hot and lazy Sunday best spent on a front porch. Last year’s Bonny Light Horseman was a particularly rustic detour for Johnson, and while not completely out of his wheelhouse, it was particularly stripped back, making the most of the folk fundamentals. Kaufman’s production fits like a glove on The Pet Parade, and Johnson rides over it with the ease of an American muscle car on an empty highway.

Vocally, Johnson performs as one might expect, but leans into a twang that he seems to have adopted amidst the folksier compositions. He occasionally allows vocal lines to drift off in whichever direction they desire, evoking a Bob Dylan impression that is a little too on-the-nose. This all culminates in a David Rawlings-esque delivery suited to the album’s vibes. It can be distracting, but Johnson’s pulls off his nasal, ethereal pastiche and makes it something that is unmistakably Fruit Bats.

Despite some timely songwriting, Johnson penned almost all of the songs pre-pandemic, making only minor edits during the recording process to more accurately portray the planet’s current situation. Aging, meandering and involuntary introspection all make thematic appearances in the form of gems like “We’ve been lately walking down hallways/ To where we’re usually afraid to be” on “Cub Pilot,” a track with a seemingly prophetic take on the first few months of quarantine. Johnson compares our own conscience to the home we spend all day. He uses such simple language and phrasing that it almost undercuts how sharp his writing can be at times.

The subjects of The Pet Parade are given very little characterization, but the information that dribbles out hints at complicated people living through uncomplicated moments. “Saint Alice sunset/ A person I never got to know too well / And that’s something that I do regret” off of “Gullwing Doors” is one of many examples of Johnson’s understated, evocative prowess as a storyteller.

With a steady and consistent sound palette, Johnson and Kaufman drift between dreamy soft rock and psychedelic-infused folk at the drop of a hat. The album uses simple yet versatile instrumentation, ranging from the fuzzed out guitar on “Holy Rose” to the breezy keys and light vocal harmonies on “Eagles Below Us.” Despite how easy-going the album is, there is a constant sense of moving forward, with each song having a distinct identity. Sometimes this lackadaisical mindset works against them, however. The title track is an almost seven-minute slow burn that takes a good while to build up to anything substantial, and as an opener it sets a false precedent; things get stale by the end. The next culprit is the closer “Complete,” which condenses the album’s mantra into a refrain of “You shall be complete/I decree it so.” It’s an admittedly cute send-off to a project revolving around discovering and accepting how simple life may be, but it’s too thin and unambiguous, as if the message is being spoon-fed.

Other than a couple of duds, though, there is little to complain about. Each song feels familiar in some sense, but Johnson makes them his own. The Pet Parade essentially comes off like listening to pros in their pocket. Johnson and Kaufman knew what they were doing when they recorded the album. Like the music itself, they understood that it might not sound new, but it was never about that. Within a familiar framework, they expressed themselves in a familiar form that they truly make their own.

Drifting between dreamy soft rock and psychedelic-infused folk, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman expressed themselves in a familiar form that they make their own.
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