Like St. Francis Xavier in a coonskin cap, Fruit Bats frontman Eric Johnson has a way with animals: For starters, dancing moths, honeybees, fireflies, mastadons, mountain goats, chestnut mares, poison frogs and bison herds are all over Echolocation. But while a mismatched menagerie inspires his sweetly rendered retreats from big-city living, the Chicago-based songwriter still maintains a healthy respect for Mother Nature's bitchier side. After all, shooting stars might look pretty, but they can rip your arms off.
Unfolding at the the speed of a Ping-Pong match on Pluto, this quiet debut blends the unexpected vocal harmonies of pop and country into a uniquely satisfying brand of space-age acoustica. Laconic ballads conjure the days of Manifest Destiny and celebrate every fragrant inch of the uncharted territory left unpaved by the industrious hands of man. And while preaching sermons to the birds might seem like a sincere waste of time, it's hard not to believe Johnson when he sings "Oh, what a day for sunshine" or "Lightning struck the same place a thousand times" ("Buffalo and Deer") with more candor than John Denver ever mustered to gush about pinecones. Then again, Johnson has studio whiz Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Chiyoko, Califone) to rein him in when too much ungodly beauty gets in the way of just singing a good song.
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Combining time-frozen decay and brittle arrangements, Fruit Bats concocts its own soft, melodic jumble from several understated sources: ukulele, clarinet, marimba, Casio, Cajun triangle and crickets. The group might be flirting with the notion of a concept album here, too: The auditory perception of bats "seeing sounds" to avoid obstacles and hunt prey provides the title. (The band's flying namesake is an ominous, chattering beast with a six-foot wingspan -- the largest of bats, subtropical or otherwise -- that, due to its inability to land gracefully, must crash into bushes in order to come to a complete stop.) Aside from an abrupt hoedown that shatters the album's tranquility at the midway point ("Echolocation Stomp"), most of the tunes drift between lullaby and wanderlust with an occasional prehistoric sea shanty ("A Dodo Bird") or banjo lament ("Coal Age"). Johnson's own psychoactive longing for more ruthless times highlights matters with an amusing sing-along called "Dragon Ships": "I wish I was a Viking in 1103/I'd fuck up shit on the high cold sea/I know the Vikings were always ripped/They kept a lot of drugs on the dragon ships." One man's quest for Valhalla never sounded so good.