(Easy Sound Recording Co.)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Never say never again.
That might be the cliché aimed at Eric D. Johnson who, in late 2013, said he would retire his alter-ego Fruit Bats to work under his own moniker. One solo release (perhaps not surprisingly credited to and titled EDJ) and a few more obscure scores for soundtracks of independent films later, Johnson revives his Fruit Bats alias for a sixth album (and first under that title in five years), perhaps because it’s more recognizable than a name he shares with an unrelated jazz-fusion guitarist.
Regardless of the reason, it’s great to have him back. He has also brought longtime producer Thom Monahan (Vetiver, Neal Casal) along and together they craft a sweet (more often bittersweet) set that places Johnson’s affecting, irresistable, high tenor voice against lilting, often Beatle-esque melodies. There’s little doubt that Johnson has been influenced by John Lennon, since many of his vocal inflections mirror that of the Beatle. There are hints of McCartney too, especially in the bouncing bass of “Humbug Mountain Song,” the disc’s first single, a track enlivened by Johnson’s banjo. But Johnson’s music and strummy, instantly hummable melodies are additionally reminiscent of George Harrison and to stretch the analogy even further, World Party’s Karl Wallinger. Nothing rocks out, but these mid-tempo gems, many with multiple overdubs that fatten yet never overwhelm the sound, find a comfortable middle road between folk, pop and rock with melodies that flow rather than explode out of the speakers.
In most cases, as with “Good Will Come to You” with its Tom Petty-ish guitar lead, the songs are so immediately likeable and familiar, they might be covers of tunes you have heard before. The generally upbeat melodies and Johnson’s overall honeyed, non-threatening style tend to hide darker, cautionary lyrics as on the tender ballad “It Must be Easy.” Johnson works in a somewhat mid-’70s aesthetic with an emphasis on simplicity in these 10 songs, all of which combine for a comeback that’s arguably better than much of what preceded it.
Despite the downbeat album title, Johnson has crafted winning, uplifting music that’s inspirational, even rousing, under any name.