It’s been a while since we’ve heard new material from the Fruit Bats, thanks large in part to a brief hiatus so they guys could focus on other projects. As is the case with most brief hiatuses, this one was worth the wait.
While The Ruminant Band and Tony the Tripper both showcased a more elaborate production value than the preceding albums, Absolute Loser returns slightly to the frontman Eric D. Johnson’s roots as a folk based artist who doesn’t stray terribly from acoustic overtones and nostalgic midwestern living. But rather than mirroring their oldest albums, Loser combines the best of both worlds.
The title track, for example, has a delicate yet energetic flow of acoustic backdrop underscored by catching licks and vocals reminiscent of songs like “Dolly” without all the intensity.
Then there are songs like “My Sweet Midwest” that seem like they could have fit well enough on Spelled In Bones except for a more uplifting overtone that breeds the happiness of Ruminant Band without the urgency of rhythm that owned so much of their two previous albums.
That’s not to say Absolute Loser has no spice to it. There’s a lot, in fact. “Humbug Mountain Song,” the first single/video from the album, carries so much of American folk at its base with driving acoustic rhythms and a steady, strong banjo that evokes bluegrass rock without straying from the increasingly edginess the band has consistently added to their work over the last three albums. The song is both an example of modern folk and a unique hybrid of sound that many bands from places like the midwest and northwest have been trying to master for the last decade.
One of the things that makes Loser such a beautiful return-to-roots for fans is the removal of electronic production and the resurrected vocal mix that owes in part to Johnson’s decision to keep within a reasonable range of his already insane octave range as well as their choice to produce the vocals less than any other sound on the album. One of the big complaints about the last two efforts was the inability to understand what Johnson was saying. That’s not the case here. The vocals are crisp and accessible. Though the vocal boundaries Johnson pushed on Ruminant Band and Tony the Tripper demonstrated excellent musicianship and by no means sounded bad, the vocals here are more like those on Spelled in Bones, which does the band the service of showcasing Johnson’s breathtaking songwriting underscored by thoughtful, relevant, and still-complex musical sound.
Some bands are prolific with album production, and most of those bands burn out quickly. What has kept Fruit Bats successful for as long as they’ve been, and what’s grown their fanbase even in their absence, is their indifference to proliferation. After all, absence makes the heart grow fonder, which may explain why, amidst so many years of silence, the Bats’ only become a more attractive, more relevant, and perhaps most importantly, more relatable band.