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Fruit Bats - Mouthfuls

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Artist: Fruit Bats

Album: Mouthfuls

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Apr. 16, 2003

Gulp it Down

When Califone associate Eric Johnson first introduced his solo project, Fruit Bats, he did so largely because of the encouragement and help from his Califone band mates. As a result, the Fruit Bats’ first release, Echolocation, found Johnson massaging, but not entirely burying simple, well-crafted pop tunes under layers of drone and noodling. While this spatial meandering does wonders for Califone themselves, it acted as a punch-inhibitor for Johnson, suppressing his poppy bursts under clouds of Rutili/Massarella-inspired drum wanderings. On Mouthfuls, the Fruit Bats’ Sub Pop debut, Johnson has shaken himself free of the drone to release an album of pristine folk-pop backed by whispery wall-of-sound back-up vocals, crisp guitar figures, and some of the best pop songwriting this side of the Shins.

And like the Shins, and other top-tier pop groups of the recent past, Johnson’s songwriting is fundamentally straightforward, but tinkered and offbeat enough for Mouthfuls to rise above the present glut of pleasantly forgettable pop. Songs like “When U Love Somebody” and “The Little Acorn” find Johnson bouncing catchy melodies that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Elephant Six release, but his funny song-structures and often elaborate arrangements reveal new pleasantries with every listen. Johnson’s elaborate arrangements come close to excess, but like Califone, they are well-spaced and allow for a more pensive, precise pop. Indeed, many of Mouthfuls’ most exciting moments come not from the density of sound, but rather from the lack of it. “A Bit of Wind” waxes and wanes nicely, each time stretching a bit farther. When a chorus of Brian Wilson-inspired “oooh ooohs” chimes in towards the end, the impact is quite strong.

Another noteworthy difference between Echolocation and Mouthfuls is the addition Gillian Lisee, whose backup vocals and harmonies add thickness and tone to Johnson’s heartfelt but unremarkable voice. As well, Lisee’s instrumental contributions (keyboards and mandolin) contribute strongly to the albums’ generally off-kilter mood. Echoes of Califonic scatter-based rhythm sections show up here and there, but never stay for long enough for songs to lose their melodic focus.

Some of Mouthfuls’ slower songs, “Track Rabbits” and “Lazy Eye,” are two of its strongest, both demonstrating that even without the spiced-up bells and whistles of more upbeat tracks, Johnson’s songwriting holds its own. The echoey background vocals of “Track Rabbits” are eerily similar to those on the Shins’ “New Slang”; noticeable, but not intrusive. “Lazy Eye” finds Johnson creating and improvising about various love-based ruminations (“Love turns tripe into gold / Love burns a circle in the snow”), slowly strumming and plucking along, leaving plenty of time for Lisee’s easy-going piano leads.

Mouthfuls may not be a masterpiece like Oh, Inverted World, but the Fruit Bats’ pristine blend of acoustic pop and Califone-influenced spaciousness gives it the potential to be another pop sensation for Sub Pop. Eric Johnson’s sharp and catchy songwriting combined with his unpredictably sharp arrangements help to make the Fruit Bats more than just another pop group.

By Sam Hunt

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