Never one of Sub Pop’s whizz-bang, media-grabbing acts, yet increasingly among its flagship ones, Eric D. Johnson’s Fruit Bats project has been afloat for some 14 years. Originating in Chicago, this gifted songsmith initially worked in a breezy, if uncomplicated, folk-rock idiom. As of late, he decidedly has gone pan-American and beyond, touring within the ranks of Califone, Vetiver and, most recently, the Shins. In the meantime, Fruit Bats quietly soldiers on.
Tripper, his fifth album and fourth for Sub Pop, is a watershed moment — a perfect time to join Johnson’s narrative. His most lyrically assertive and singularly focused effort, it sees Johnson entering into an intensive collaboration with Thom Monahan, an L.A.-frazzled producer of an old-school bunker mentality, whose CV includes numerous Vetiver records and Devendra Banhart’s Cripple Crow. Together, they reinvent and refresh Johnson’s songwriting template.
More than ever before, Tripper finds Johnson reveling in the power of pure sound. Second track “So Long” transmits all the pulse-quickening euphoria of discovery of, say, Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, or even the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” “You’re Too Weird,” with its country-folk guitar-picking, wanders into Mazzy Star-like cosmic speculation, as guitar effects and muted synth patterns weave into a gorgeous blur.
There are guests here, though they wander in and out of the frame naturally and without fanfare: opener “Tony the Tripper,” featuring guests Richard Swift and Avi Buffalo, follows our hero’s real-life train odyssey up through middle America, randomly accompanied by a hobo fellow-traveler. It’s a post-millennial Huck Finn adventure; Tripper is full of them, and it is one of the Fruit Bats’ loveliest and most picaresque journeys yet.