Fruit Bats – Tripper

January 01, 1970

(Sub
Pop)

 

www.subpop.com

 

Eric D.
Johnson took a train ride from Chicago to Olympia when he was 20,
so the story goes, and on the way, he sat next to a veteran traveler named
Tony. Stuck with each other for 12 hours, the two struck up a relationship that
alternated between friendship and torment on the part of the older vagabond.
It’s left such an impression on Johnson that, a decade after the fact, the man
behind the Fruit Bats imagined a concept album about a cross country trip the
two might’ve taken together, and the characters they could meet on the way.

 

The
Fruit Bats’ fifth album is all about the idealism of what the open road offers,
the characters who populate it and, finally and realistically, the realization
that the journey doesn’t take us away from our problems. It might actually just
transplant them in whatever new setting we discover on the way. “Picture of a
Bird” concludes the album with this expansive thought, hinting that maybe the
whole thing was imagined while staring out the window during a long train ride.

 

But
like every journey, the experiences along the way are what shape the event.
Johnson starts the album with “Tony the Tripper,” paying homage to the man who
started it all, “my friend and my worst enemy,” who reminds him the world might
end tomorrow, so don’t fight the feeling. Along the way, we are introduced to a
woman who’s already trapped in her life (“So Long”), another who Johnson urges
to make a break (“Dolly”) and some high and mighty people with attitudes that
create their own undoing (“The Banishment Song”). Perhaps the most poignant
element of the album comes in its most optimistic song, “Wild Honey.” And this
was written by Chicago
musician Diane Izzo, who died of brain cancer right as Tripper went to tape.

 

The
lyric sheet is a mandatory accessory because Johnson smooths out a lot of his
consonants thus making some of the lines easy to miss. In keeping with the
American landscape of the subject matter, Johnson gives his songs an
occasionally rustic, rootsy feel to the music.

 

Sometimes
it just calls for the man and his guitar, while others call for a full band, or
the inclusion of a Chamberlin to lend some pathos to the melancholy story. The
red herring intro to “The Banishment Song” contains a fingerpicked acoustic
guitar, which gives way to piano, electric keyboard and drum machine for the body
of the song. This, like the country pop of “You’re Too Weird” features Johnson
double-tracking a vocal, singing a falsetto harmony that really sounds like a
female duo partner on first listen. The lyric and rhythm of “Dolly” sound like
vintage Paul Simon (a Johnson favorite) even if the music is light years
different.

 

The
songs convey a lot of deep ideas without resorting to flowery prose. In fact
the words are often fairly straightforward which ends up making the whole
project hit a little deeper than initially anticipated. Thom Monahan, who has
produced Vetiver and the Pernice Brothers, works similar magic on Tripper, making it a subtle and
captivating release.

 

DOWNLOAD: “So Long,” “The
Banishment Song.” MIKE
SHANLEY

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