Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be a little late ’60s/early ’70s revival thing going on these days. You’ve got the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, and all the reissues and retrospectives that entails; an apparent razor shortage in my local hipster community that’s lead to full beards and long hair streaming from every artfully beat-up bicycle; and even those big floppy hats like the one George Harrison wears on the cover of All Things Must Pass seem to be back in style. If there’s a break-in at a major political party headquarters in the next few months, or astronauts suddenly land on Mars, just remember you heard it here first.
Providing a soundtrack for this undercurrent of nostalgia are the Fruit Bats, whose fourth album The Ruminant Band presents a collection of country-tinged classic rock songs best described as The Band and Nashville Skyline-era Dylan as channeled by Jeff Tweedy. Granted this could just be a description of Wilco, but the Fruit Bats adhere a little closer to their Baby Boomer influences. This is both a strength and a crutch.
As trendy as Boomer-bashing is these days, there’s a reason people still listen to the music of that era. I defy you not to crank up the car stereo when “The Weight” comes on an oldies station. And The Ruminant Band has that admirable quality of being good driving music. Songs like the title track, “My Unusual Friend” and “The Blessed Breeze,” have the kind of chugging rhythms, bright melodies and lush production that make you want to role down the windows and cruise just slightly above the speed limit.
The easy-going “Feather Beds” has a guitar bridge right out of the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” that’s hard to resist, and opener “Primitive Man” has a subtle urgency to its jazzy strum, slide guitar and timpani-like drums that almost brings the classic rock sound into the modern era.
But “almost” is the key here. Because when the piano on “Being on Our Own” reminds you of the Ringo-sung Help! track “Act Naturally,” you start to wonder why you aren’t listening to that record instead. And when singer/songwriter Eric Johnson sings about “a man who lives in the sun, who’s got it out for everyone” on the same song, you remember why Boomer bashing is trendy in the first place.
Behind Johnson’s reedy voice, the Fruit Bats gel seamlessly, with lead guitarist Sam Wagster’s smooth licks, Graeme Gibson’s shuffling drums, Chris Sherman’s two-stepping bass lines and multi-instrumentalist Ron Lewis filling any gaps. The Ruminant Band is solid and sunny and lacking in cynicism. It’s a backyard summer barbecue of a record. But it isn’t particularly refreshing, and it doesn’t answer the age-old question of why the 1960s refuse to go away.
A quiet highlight of The Ruminant Band is the short acoustic ballad “Singing Joy to the World,” about a guy and a girl on a date that they both know won’t turn into anything, but they enjoy a Three Dog Night concert at a fairground anyway. “She never loved him back, it wasn’t even close / But he was fine with just pretend that it was never gonna end / And it was worth it just to know a little warmth before the snow,” Johnson sings.
In some ways, that song does what the rest of the album can’t: it takes something that was very much of one time period, and makes it timeless. Placing Three Dog Night at a fair ground is a crafty bridge, because the group could be playing a festival at the height or its career, or giving a free show at a county fair. Either way, it makes sense for a couple to be making out there. And it makes sense for us to care.
Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline
The Band – Music from Big Pink
Wilco – Sky Blue Sky