One of the main reasons we felt compelled to start this blog was a frustration with the concept of a grading system. When you have an album as conflicting and inconsistent as “Tripper” by the Fruit Bats, you really can’t even begin to assign a letter grade or ten point rating to assess the thing. I have listened to it over half a dozen times by now and seem to arrive at a different conclusion each time. I feel like I need to write this review just so I can be done with it and move on to something else. So here it goes; my catharsis.
I know for sure that, instrumentally, the album won me over completely. They are certainly not afraid to diversify as each song seems to offer its own unique packaging and presentation. In some songs (“Tony the Tripper,” “Tangie and Ray”), you get your usual acoustic guitar pluckings that make for soft rock/borderline folksy ballads. Yet these are just one track away from “Shivering Fawn,” which uses a series of high pitched bells (I believe) as the chorus during the refrain, and “Dolly,” which has some sort of harpsichord or organ setting the melody. It never seems overwhelming or crowded at any point. It’s not like I ever sat back and thought, “Oh this is the bells song.” They all maintain some degree of continuity to them but added those little components to keep you listening and wondering what set that song apart from others. The flourishing tone of “So Long” feels like something you’d hear in the lobby of a Mandarin Oriental Hotel; in other words, ambient and euphoric.
Don’t get me wrong, you will still find your share of classic folk rock songs that I can best compare to the material found on last year’s MGMT album, Celebration. That release is probably the best measuring stick or gauge for whether or not you like this one. I was pretty torn on that album, too, so it makes sense. Even with their instrumental ambition, they never really take the album outside of its safety zone. Even as the songs were enjoyable, I felt like they kept doing the same trick over and over again with them. Eric D. Johnson sings every song in essentially the same way; he moans all of the verses at the bottom of his range before hitting some high inflections for the refrains. It does get a little tiresome, to be honest, as a lot of times he seemed to just be doing his best Andrew Van Wyngarden impersonation. It’s a perplexing problem. It’s a good formula and would probably work if you listened to each of the songs individually. But when you’re listening to the album all the way through (especially six times!), I just can’t ignore it.
Going off of that, I found the lyrics to fall into a few cycles of repetition. In the aforementioned “So Long,” he literally belts the lines “She should dance if she wants to dance” what feels like two hundred times in the course of four minutes. I couldn’t really find any satisfying explanation for it either, other than that maybe they just couldn’t think of anything else. And the album is littered with problems like that.
I sound like I am giving it a negative review, which I definitely am not. Individually, I think I like every single one of these songs. I can easily understand why this album has made itself top dog of the College Radio charts for the past month (I guess college kids don’t like Watch the Throne?) and am genuinely happy to see that a band like the Fruit Bats can get their moment after being together for fourteen years. It’s a great album to add to your collection and hear the songs separately over the course of time (especially the Americana “Heart Like an Orange). However, I must warn you that after too many listens of it together, it will start to feel like a one-trick pony. So there’s the closest thing I have to a solution; put it on your iPod, hit shuffle, and don’t look back.