It’s good to be Sub Pop. In on the ground floor of grunge and now at the epicenter of the whole ‘grandkids of Gram Parsons meet the Beatles’ trend, the Seattle label seems to put out quality release after quality release (save for maybe Wolf Eyes). It’s gotten to the point where there might end up being fistfights throughout Treblezine for the latest Sub Pop albums. And yet, because of this treading of the line between indie and mass market, Sub Pop bands end up as fodder for teen movies and television shows. The same can be said for the latest release from the label, Fruit Bats’ Spelled in Bones. At its best, the album is pure twangy pop mastery. At its worst, it is a mixture of labelmates the Shins and the Elected, which isn’t too bad.
Fruit Bats is essentially Eric Johnson, formerly a touring member of Califone. Once backed up by multi-instrumentalist Gillian Lisee, the main Bat now has company in another multi-instrumentalist, Dan Strack, and percussionist John Byce. Make no mistake though, Johnson has the controls and he is steering the Fruit Bats into harmonic country pop territory that, true, has been tread before, but maybe not as deftly. The liner notes of the CD have the words “Every Day That We Wake Up It’s a Beautiful Day” written inside, representing the title of the last song, which happens to be instrumental. As such, the lines appear by themselves on one page as there are no lyrics to follow. This is not merely an optimistic saying, nor just a song title, but also the focus of the album as a whole. Each song on Spelled in Bones is part of a larger masterwork about nature, life and self realization.
The song “Legs of Bees” is probably the closest song in style to the Shins and could actually probably be easily mistaken for James Mercer’s band. It’s a good thing this CD came out when it did for Sub Pop as Shins fans have been clamoring for another record as it looks more and more as if there will be about three years in between their releases. But hopefully Spelled in Bones will open up people’s ears to something else besides the obvious similarities. For instance, in my opinion, the central song of the album is “Born in the 70’s,” not to be confused with Ed Harcourt’s song of the same name. Johnson’s voice is at its highest falsetto in the song, expressing an angst and ennui that comes with turning 30 in the 2000’s.
The sands of time stuck in your shoe
They make you cross, they make you blue
Whatever happened to you?
You were born in the seventies
Eric Johnson’s melodic old time piano, the presence of the twanging lap steel, and that higher register Lennon-esque voice all meet to create an album that is more than just pop, merely bordering on alt-country, and more polished than indie. In the similar albums piece I reference Beulah’s Yoko, an album that shares more than just a musical similarity. Sure, both combine all the same musical elements including throwing in a little Beach Boys in their Beatles and Byrds, but they will probably both go down as underrated albums. People have already somewhat forgotten about Beulah, and indeed, maybe as a result, the band has broken up. Spelled in Bones is an accomplished album, just not one that is likely to stay in print forever.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.