Spelled in Bones
a la la. And a wham bam a ling. And perhaps a doo-doo-doo. Throw a shama-lama-ding-dong in there and let’s move on. This is the Fruit Bats. Eric Johson’s band has made a short career out of sifting through sandy acoustic drawls and timeless sun-scorched harmonies. They’ve recreated After The Gold Rush for an era that has to forget its roots while paying them silent lip-service. Christ, ole Neil thought he had it burned with the basement dregs of his early-seventies records, but here The Fruit Bats find a way of forging that melancholy reluctance into a statement of hope and perseverance. If Mouthfuls, their second record, and first for Sub Pop, was stark and anthemic, Spelled In Bones is a flush, kaleidoscopic vision that makes good on the promise of their debut while adding a deep urgency that speaks well for the band.
At first, it’s hard to place just where the band has gone with this record. The first listens shed little light on their growth. You’re ultimately tempted to believe the band has rutted itself. And then you play it again. The shimmering synth lines gauze the horizon in a sticky phlegm, and the limber folk-country backdrops bleed into subtle indie symphonies. Pay attention to the dim banjo jam that emerges in the midst of “Canyon Girl” or the almost Shields/Branca noise-bleed that comes out of “Traveler’s Song.”
There’s flesh and drool in the air here, and the crackling, dry-limbs of many of the best tracks on their debut set the stage for what become grandiose country-highway hymns. The band’s interplay is now murky-deep, allowing for a more complex sound without losing the clean-forest grasp of their sound. This is a flame that leaps about without claims to calm or comfort. It will catch. It will hold. It will burn. And, Christ, just maybe you’ll combust in the aftermath and bloat thin in the gasgleam. I can’t say.
What I can say is that Spelled in Bones, for all of its subtle improvements, won’t change the listening life of those unfamiliar with the band. The Fruit Bats have made steps on this one, but it’s still Eric Johnson’s charming, day-fire melodies that define the record. “TV Waves” is a stately, Youngesque piano ballad that stitches into a synth-glow country ballad. Both “Born in the Seventies” and “The Earthquake of ‘73” tie the myriad seventies motifs into a remarkable theme-lined whole, allowing the listener an open-eyed gleam at the band’s loves and recreating them with a warmth and consistency that never feels retro-dead. Perhaps the record’s best track, “Traveler Song,” really shows the Shins’ glowing sense of shaded optimism and romance. With a gorgeous piano line and airy synth washes, the band creates the dream-state of the crab fisherman. It’s a hard-life, and a deadly one, but when you’re under and gone, pulled below in the oil-cold deep, it’s nothing again. It’s forgotten.
In the end, Spelled in Bones is the kind of utterly engrossing record destined, just like that Alaskan crab-fisherman in the Arctic, to sink quickly from public consciousness. It’s not groundbreaking. It’s not a huge stylistic forward leap or a studio-stunt. It’s simply another of Eric Johnson and his band’s records of simple grandiosity. So swim in alleys of mud. Carve crude steam in the blacktop. Grovel in the urban roadway and grunt in the cornfields. Any way you play this gruesome-hot summer, it’s an awesome exchange, and one more than capably soundtracked by Spelled in Bones.