Gorgeous latest from the hardest-working man in indie-folk.
‘A River Running to Your Heart’ is a low-key beauty of a record, a small and lovely triumph for a too often despondent and agitated world. It is a record that offers a sense of calm and reflective contemplation in a delightful and substantial setting. It is carefully crafted, with an artisan’s eye for detail, an eye that primary creator Eric D. Johnson has been cultivating for the best part of 25 years and nine (or is it 16?) Fruit Bats records.
The album’s mellifluous nature and the gentle ease with which it insinuates itself into the consciousness is perhaps surprising given Johnson’s recent full-tilt working schedule. There have been at least four original Fruit Bats albums since 2019 plus a double LP compilation, in addition he has delivered an incongruous lockdown project, covering Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Siamese Dream’ in its totality. And as if that’s not enough, he has been a fundamental component of A.UK favourites Bonny Light Horseman, making a significant contribution to two LPs and a number of acclaimed live shows.
It must take so much energy and focus to create such consistently high-quality art at that rate yet this record is as unhurried and restorative as they come, the feel of it even possibly suggesting some kind of respite or recharging for Johnson. It is clearly in the lineage of earlier Fruit Bats music, beginning back in 1997 when he/they were at the vanguard of the reimagining of the folk-rock project along with such contemporaries as The Decembrists, Midlake, Iron & Wine and Fleet Foxes. Musically the FBs have travelled some distance in the intervening years, at the same time they have remained remarkably true to their starting point. There is a sense that ‘A River Running to Your Heart’ is the culmination of a journey to the heart of what they are about, to uncover the essence of their easy-going sound. The band, with Johnson at the helm, have been undistracted by the fleeting glimpses of greater success that may have side-tracked some of their fellow travellers and have birthed a record that, while soaked in the SoCal sunshine, endures as intimate and tender at the same time.
The journey metaphor is a very useful one when discussing Fruit Bats’ work. Their canon is littered with references to travel and place, ‘A River Running to Your Heart’ is no exception. The title itself suggests literal and emotional journeying, then in such track titles as ‘Rushin’ River Valley’, ‘See the World By Night’, ‘Tacoma’, ‘Waking Up in Los Angeles’, ‘We Used to Live Here’ and ‘It All Comes Back’ we are taken by Johnson on his travels in both place and time. We accompany him as he tries to resolve his conflicted conceptions of what home ‘is’. Over the years the biggest distance travelled by Johnson and his Fruit Bats to arrive at this record though is in the production values. The LP does present the core Fruit Bats sound of ultra-melodic, folk-tinged indie pop but the production of the songs brings a new level of clarity and a lushness of sound not previously found in their work.
The songs on ‘A River Running to Your Heart’ sparkle with an almost luxuriant sheen. They sound full and exquisitely crafted, with every note, every hook and every word precision-tooled for maximum impact. Over the years FBs have been a hard band to pin down, critics have had trouble boxing-up just what their sound is. References to them being lumped in with various styles and scenes abound. At one time or another they have been painted as indie rock/pop, laurel canyon, power pop, folk-rock, alt-country, blue-eyed soul and even chamber pop. Without a doubt the Fruit Bats are seen and present as genre-fluid then. Johnson and his band’s latest LP buffs all these reference points to a beautiful sheen and what emerges is a sleek and gleaming artefact of yacht rock loveliness.
Phew, said it, the YR words are out in the open. Now just take a pause, rid yourselves of those preconceptions and your imaginings of Andrew Gold, Captain & Tennille or Rupert Holmes. Instead imagine a world where yacht rock is not a de facto insult, tagging artists as bland, lame and soulless AOR but one in which it represents a beautiful and welcoming realm of crystalline production, harmonic sophistication and big-hearted melodies. These qualities create an entirely coherent and seamless record, one that flow effortlessly from one appealing moment to the next. Nothing jars or interrupts the mood of the piece as a whole, which is a graceful and compelling charm. Indeed it is not too much of a compliment to say that the unified feel created is reminiscent of that surfaced by the Blue Nile. This stylistic and atmospheric cohesion is immediately apparent and welcome, though somehow it does belie the unique sophistication of the individual songs of which the LP is comprised.
Take one of the standout tracks ‘Sick of This Feeling’ the opening scratches of guitar and gentle drums lead to a lovely full arrangement with transcendent harmonies that does bring to mind early Blue Nile. However, notes taken for this track also mention Whitney, Muttonbirds, Scritti Politti, Gayngs and even Hall & Oates, such is its timeless, shapeshifting beauty. Standout track ‘Waking up in Los Angeles’ articulates the yearning for a home in which to feel settled; “Now we all want a home, metaphorical or real, someplace to make us feel … whole” and perfectly reflects the Laurel Canyon (via Dawes) feel at the heart of the record. ‘We Used to Live Here’ takes up this idea with Johnson reflecting that “We used to call this our home, we were the perfect age, and the rent was so low” in a simple moving performance of acoustic guitar and plaintive voice. More upbeat is ‘Rushin’ River Valley’ with its acoustic War on Drugs chug, propulsive folk energy and chiming guitar – a kind of lost pastoral Flying Nun 7 inch if that’s possible. The twinkling shuffle of ‘Tacoma’, like much of the record, brings to mind the Shins, unsurprisingly given Johnson’s 4-year tenure in the band, a time that he openly acknowledges the importance of in shaping his subsequent work.
All these songs engage us like old friends, greeting them (again) makes us smile and feel warm inside. We’re moved to think “Ohh, it’s nice to see you again buddy” when in fact we’ve never met before, except perhaps in some unreal alternate universe where everything is at once brand new and as familiar as your favourite pair of shoes. Such songs fill up this record. They offer us universal themes but are personal and intimate. They feel like they are just for us because that intimacy allows us to colour them with our own meaning, like a beautifully prepared canvas on to which we can apply our own finishing touches to creative little customised masterpieces.
‘A River Running to Your Heart’ is a lush open-hearted record that is endlessly accessible and welcoming to all. It is immediately likeable yet grows over time into a thing of real beauty and substance. It sustains the warmth and amiability of Johnson’s best work with an immaculately crafted sophistication and perfectly judged performances. That such a sumptuous record can remain so intimate and low-key is a minor marvel, one which we are all grateful to be invited to experience.