Favorite Track: “On the Avalon Stairs” Least Favorite Track: "Here For Now, For You"
Since the release of their debut in 2001, the Chicago folk-rock project Fruit Bats has gone through countless personnel changes. Nonetheless, after over two decades of output, Eric D. Johnson has remained the band's constant. Serving as the face of Fruit Bats, and in more recent years simply going by the name as an individual, Johnson has always served as the primary singer/songwriter for the group. In many ways, his output in the early 2000’s was wildly ahead of its time, and paved the way for many bands from the early 2000’s folk-rock boom. It is entirely possible that if it wasn’t for the music of Eric D. Johnson, we would have never got to know names like Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens, and Mount Eerie. The multi-instrumentalist’s latest album, The Pet Parade, serves as a statement of celebration. It is arguably the most up-beat project to come from Fruit Bats to date, and with just how long he’s been at it, the celebration is long overdue.
Almost every Fruit Bats project is extremely likable by merit of their simplicity; Johnson has never been in the business of releasing wildy experimental or boundary pushing music on a sonic front. He instead tends to stick to a mainly acoustic palette, playing with harmonicas and classic folk instrumentation. However, The Pet Parade implements a number of sonic changes for Fruit Bats. On the back half of the album's centerpiece, “The Balcony”, Johnson toutes a melodica. Some form of keys make their way into just about every track on The Pet Parade, and busy drum beats and bass grooves pepper almost every mix on the album. The majority of these tracks are much busier than your average Fruit Bats song. Not to say they aren’t folk through and through, but electric instrumentation embellishes Johnson's traditional style extremely well all over this project.
The Pet Parade opens with its title track, a long winded, slow-burning, six minute and forty-two second meditation. It’s the album's longest song and quite possibly its most tame, but it feels like the musical embodiment of Johnson drawing back the curtain to a new side of his musicianship and songwriting. “Hello, from in here to all you out there” Johnson groans in his trademarked falsetto as the album's opening lines play. His layered vocals over such a simplistic instrumental serve as the perfect intro. Track two is titled “Cub Pilot”, and the song does an exceptional job at establishing The Pet Parades upbeat and inspirational ethos. “We've been trapping the pleasures inside, that we've always been afraid to see”. It sounds as if Johnson is tired of hiding the joy that over twenty years of musical success has brought him. No doubt the journey wasn’t a cakewalk; but “Cub Pilot” sounds as if he is content where he is at.
Track three and four serve as the album's first strong one-two punch as well as the defining sequence in the album's first leg. “Discovering” runs like an uphill battle. The song’s refrain doesn’t make itself apparent until the very last stanza, instead its instrumentation and intensity re-invent themself with every new verse. The payoff is all worth it. Structurally, this song is musical IQ at its finest, making it nearly impossible to turn off before it's over. “The Balcony” follows as track four. Its upbeat acoustic strum, melodica solo, and euphoric tone are entirely irresistable. “On the Avalon Stairs” serves as another clear highlight at the sixth spot, and has a similar structural niche to “Discovering”. The song's production is perhaps the most grandiose on the entire record, fit with a guitar solo, some descending synthesizer scales, more backing synth loops than one could count, and an absolutely flawless transition into track seven.
The Pet Parade is incredibly consistent. None of these tracks feel out of place in the slightest. The quality of almost every song either surpasses or maintains the quality of its predecessor. The only track that is slightly off-course would have to be “Here For Now, For You”, only because it seems to struggle to find a distinct vocal melody in the way that the other tracks on the project do. The album’s last blaring highlight comes in the form of its most shining moment of hopefulness. Track ten of eleven, “Gullwing Doors”, meditates on the importance of keeping yourself in check as an open book. “Open up, like Gullwing Doors”, Johnson croons over a classic acoustic Fruit Bats-esque instrumental. It’s the album's most direct track and likely its most gleaming message. Johnson sings “A book on tape on the stereo/With an opening line that's making you cry/It's OK to do that sometimes”. It's an inspiring message of self-reflection, reminding listeners to trust in those around them and never bottle up what can be let out with a simple cry, or a long talk with a friend, some beers, and backyard bonfire courtesy of Fruit Bat’s Chicago Illinois.
The Pet Parade is not only Fruit Bat’s best album in a very long time, but quite possibly one of the greatest feats of Johnson’s long career. It is consistent, loveable, and unbelievablely endearing. Eric D. Johnson toutes the line between repetitive, consistent, and familiar in a way that is so particular that it must be intentional. Like many of Fruit Bat’s albums, The Pet Parade feels like a hug from an old friend that you haven’t seen in years; familiar, but not unwanted. The Pet Parade embodies the essence of the age-old saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.