[Sub Pop; 2011]

Fruit Bats singer/songwriter Eric Johnson and Sub Pop are at it again, pairing up for Tripper; a self-declared “bittersweet meditation on hitting the road, leaving the familiar behind and reinventing yourself.” After playing with The Shins on their last world tour, Johnson returned to the studio with vogue alt-folk producer Thom Monahan to record Fruit Bats’ 5th LP. Johnson gives Monahan some major props, crediting his producer’s “knowledge of Sonics and a Zen-like approach” for the album’s “deep, refined sound.”

On up-tempo opener “Tony the Tripper,” a dreamy space echo penetrates Johnson’s emphatic acoustic strumming, as the singer introduces a cohort of deluded vagabonds and defective nobodies: “Tony the tripper and me / And the dude who thought he was my hero / And the Mayor of nowhere land / And the girl with the wanderin’ eye came a wanderin’ by.” As lithe piano lines give way to crisp electric guitar hooks, Johnson pitches in with lackadaisical ambivalence: “It was all under the dead palm tree / They left the rollin’ of one up to me / Knowin’ the world might end tomorrow an-eeeee-way!”

“Tangie and Ray,” one of the LP’s “story songs” that has the instrumental section taking a back seat to Johnson’s narrative, chronicles a pilgrimage from the safety of home to “go rolling with the rubber tramps and see the last few mountain men.” But, like the characters in Fastball’s cautionary wanderlust-gone-awry tale “The Way,” the two kids pay dearly for failing to foresee that escaping hometown stasis also means forfeiting the security that we’ve taken for granted our entire lives: “Down in the dirt with the spineless animal and seeds / They live down in the dirt / Under the county sky and un-bro-ken can-oh-peeeee / They’re never go-innn’ home.” Leading off with a baroque harpsichord and vintage Chamberlin keyboard, “So Long” is a synthesizer laden cut about rural repression. Channeling Portland’s Blind Pilot, glistening xylophone and tranquil lyrics tie together “Shivering Fawn,” which spins as a pleasant, unassuming naturalistic track.

But it’s on upbeat waltz “Heart Like an Orange” that the seasoned maker of melodies really hits his stride. Johnson, craving the exuberant thrill of those big city lights, wines: “In his cold little town / There’s no singin’ allowed / No one smiles much / And no one makes out / And no one smokes down.” Drawn to sandy beaches, exotic bouquets, and “them Florida girls,” the singer , undeterred by a rather nasty sunburn, consecrates his marriage to the Sunshine State: “But up in her room / Smelled like sweet cinnamon / Cedar and sage and incense and smoke where few men had been.” Amidst psychedelic vocal effects, Johnson echoes: “And he’s lost and he’s gone / Got a heart like an orange!”

Building on this energy, “Dolly” is a pop tune that evokes Fruit Bats’ previous LP The Ruminant Band with tight electric guitar solos atop frenzied shakers. A robust organ and repetitive drum machines provide backbone to the singer’s bristling, nervous attempt to dislodge a young girl from the shackles of her dysfunctional relationship. Yet despite his jitters, he knows deep down that she’s already a lost cause.

Clocking in at just short of six minutes, “The Banishment Song” begins as a low-fi showcase of Johnson’s exceptionally precise finger picking virtuosity. However, the vocals are delivered entirely in falsetto, and even Fruit Bats’ folksy communal hand clapping can’t keep this one from sounding pretentious and bloated. Following lackluster instrumental “The Fen,” Johnson rebounds with a moody cover of Diane Izzo’s “Wild Honey,” which he selected for its “Buddhist undercurrent” as a tribute to the late songwriter that succumbed to brain cancer earlier this year.

The LP finishes off with “Picture of a Bird,” and touts lyrics reminiscent of 2005’s breakthrough album Spelled in Bones: “You’re headed past a rainbow / To the place where you came from to see… All the people got the fires lit today / You’re goanna find, you’re okay.”

Featuring generous heaps of falsetto and sparse, jagged guitar licks, Fruit Bats’ Tripper plays as a spectral highway romp that pairs jaunty folk-pop ditties with effervescent pop.