Fruit Bats, the brainchild of singer-songwriter-prankster Eric D. Johnson, plays SOhO tonight, supporting new album “Gold Past Life.”
Fruit Bats, with Skyway Man
When: 9 p.m., tonight
Where: SOhO, 1221 State St. (upstairs)
Cost: $15 in advance, $18 at the door
Information: 962-7776, www.sohosb.com
Tonight at SOhO, when lived-in indie sensation Fruit Bats (aka mastermind singer-songwriter-conceptualist Eric D. Johnson, around which the band revolves) takes the stage, he’ll have some new songs to sing, and attitudes to explore. A seasoned entry in the eccentric indie folk-rock genre with roots going twenty-plus years deep, the Bats’ come sporting a new album, “Gold Past Life,” officially released today, and the first since signing with the Merge label. Past records have been on the go-to indie Sub Pop label.
To get a taste of the droll humor and humble wits of the Johnson/Bats touch, one should also proceed to the 15-minute video creation called “Getting in a Van Again,” which takes on the music business in mockumentary fashion. Dry absurdist humor is the prevailing approach in the video, which follows Baron Levi, an “emotional engineer,” who guides Mr. Johnson’s recording of the song, using retro tools, recordings of “the essence of objects,” a “soup pedal” and an “underwatered plant percussion” part. A marketing man goes with the program, reasoning that “curtain sales have been steady.” (Inside joke).
And yet, in true Fruit Bats style, the plainly bizarre twists in the video can’t detract from the easy-to-love appeal of the song itself.
Fruit Bats began its life in an experimental, sideline way, as a personal project of Mr. Johnson. The gifted young young musician out of Chicago played guitar in such popular bands as The Shin and Califone, while pursuing his own music on low-fi four-track recordings starting in 1997. By the early 2000s, he had roped in other musicians, and the band Fruit Bats was off and running—in its “cult band,” slightly off the radar manner.
Musicians have come and gone, as has the Fruit Bats brand itself. After a brief “retirement” of the band in 2013, when Mr. Johnson operated under his own name, it flew again starting in 2015. It came back strongly, with the buzz-making 2016 album “Absolute Losers.”
As Mr. Johnson explained in an interview around that time, with the Boston-based online magazine “Allston Pudding,” “I realized that, whether I like it or not, the name is ‘me’ at this point. It’s always been me and a revolving cast of characters.
“I have a boring first name and it was way easier back in the day to just come up with a band name. When I was touring as ‘EDJ’ it took so much effort to explain ‘this is the dude from Fruit Bats’ that it just made more sense to start using the name again.”
He went on to explain, on the subject of “Absolute Loser,” that “this album has some pretty heavy subject matter in that it’s about my wife having a miscarriage. So ‘Absolute Loser’ really refers to someone feeling an absolute loss as in ‘one who loses everything—’ not really loser in the sense of a person who is a dork or something. There was just something evocative about (the title) to me.”
Seriousness easily blends in with silliness in his musical world.
Similarly, Mr. Johnson’s musical tastes run a wide gamut, with special emphasis on musical echoes from the ’70s—even including “mainstream” pop stylings of Supertramp, Three Dog Night and Elton John–and more expected ‘60s influences as the Byrds and the Kinks.
One of the Bats’ most popular songs to date is the fetchingly poppy and loping “Humbug Mountain Song,” a misty nostalgic song about love and natural epiphanies from “Absolute Loser.” Banjo picking and Supertramp-y pop production get along just fine on the track, testament to Mr. Johnson’s musical palette. Another “hit” in the book, going back to the album “Mouthfuls” from 2003, is “When U Love Somebody,” which seamlessly blends synthesizer washes with more purely acoustic musical strategies.
The adventure continues on “Gold Past Life,” the cover of which finds an antlered buck on a tourist-geared, chaise lounge-bedecked beach scene, with a slightly startled “deer in the camera lens” look. A first single, “Ocean,” is classic Fruit Bats—with immediately catchy melodic hooks, a presumably emotional core, lyrical quirks, and sonic touches which might be described as a bit fruity and batty.
A sense of wary entry into a new, and spiritually renewed, chapter of life comes through from the first lines of “Ocean:” “Still waiting around for some mystical shift/In the winds, sonic [leaves]/Don’t go just yet/Cigarette fingers are shaking the knees/A bit blue, kind of tired, but not broken.”
Tongue only halfway in cheek (a typical position for him), Mr. Johnson describes his band project thusly: “Fruit Bats makes existential make-out music. But you’re also welcome to dive deeper if you want. Good pop music should be sublime like that.”