A Bunch of Words About Andy
From the front porches, alleys, and rivers of Richmond, Virginia, comes Andy Jenkins carrying a crisp, newly cut album, Sweet Bunch. Hatched in the tradition of Southern culture–unhurried in his art, unworried by external demands, yet weirdly ahead of the curve by the time he arrives–Andy is a distinctive and joyously idiosyncratic songwriting talent developed for years in obscurity. Sweet Bunch springs into the world fully-formed, the work of a confident, timeless as well as contemporary singer-songwriter, offering beautiful and basic melodies with lyrics exploring the fluidity between the banal and the sublime. His work feels natural, complete within itself, untrained musically but adherent to its own forms and intricate in its own ways. Spring peepers line the path; the author feeds her peacocks strutting among vines and ruins; a photographer waits for the right light and color in frame. Each song presents a rich, new tableau of sound, glowing worlds to discover, rooted in an unnamed sense of place.
Andy could have found no better seedbed for this sensibility to flower than Spacebomb, a label known for offering high musicianship outside of the predictabilities of New York, Nashville, and Los Angeles. Produced by Matthew E. White, Sweet Bunch was recorded in three magical days of flow-state, the drums, bass, keys, and guitars all live and nothing to regret. The source of this musical surety lies above all with Jenkins’ songwriting–natural and effortless as the glide of a swan or sailboat–matched in spirit and strength by the sweet bunch in the studio. The Spacebomb crew ran hard into midnight with a few ringers along for the ride, and a very full chorus of voices shining bright behind Andy’s relaxed, self-assured singing, gently insistent as it dips and soars at every measure. Contentment in life and patience with craft is announced, almost as credo, on the opening track “Hazel Woods”:
Man, I would love to finish the book but I still have pages and pages of lines. Time sends out a withering look, but I pay it no mind. God, it’s a drag to figure it out, but what else can I do? Nothing whatever, but to read for my pleasure, as the light passes through…
Jenkins sends his warm words buoyed on cool streams of melody, to tell the greater world that Virginia has become, once again, a musical frontier. He sits at a crossroads of modernism, sensitivity and decision, with the expansiveness and musical drawl of Big Star, the bounce of Warren Zevon, and the curly, perfectly-carved melodies of Kevin Ayers. His lyrics have a tendency to stick in the mind, not straightforward storytelling, but always delivering a kind of payoff or reward. Their surrealism, closer to the origin of that term, sees the world in dualities, layered images and dreams. On the topic of love, he is soul-bearing yet light, focused outward, singing conversationally as if from driver to passenger remarking on the passing views. In a way, all of his songs are outdoor songs. Each paints a wide and wild landscape, the mood of a sun setting on a damn good day spent among friends and favored creatures. Sitting high on the hog, like a bump on a log, getting lost in the goodness of the earth.
DJ Eric D. Johnson (of Fruit Bats)
Eric D. Johnson was ready to drive the car off the cliff. He bristles at the memory and the metaphor. Instead, he recalls, he and his wife drove their Toyota Echo—so old it lacked power locks—through the Redwood forest the day they got the bad news. Their baby, due on his wife’s 40th birthday, didn’t make it past the first trimester.
“I was so grief-stricken,” recalls Johnson. “I wanted to blow up my life.”
And so he started over. He abandoned the Fruit Bats band name that carried him for 16 years and five successful studio albums. He ditched the moniker that connected him to stints playing with The Shins and Vetiver and Califone. Instead, Johnson continued pursuing other musical passions. He focused more on scoring films (having already contributed to works like Smashed and Our Idiot Brother). He produced Breathe Owl Breathe’s 2013 album Passage of Pegasus and grew his Huichica Music Festival in Sonoma, California.
Then, in 2014, Johnson released a solo album. That record, released under his own name and simply titled EDJ, “was the outpouring of grief” resulting from those experiences.
“The EDJ record was about how making something—like a person—is really easy for some people and really not for some people,” he says. “I was so sad about that, but also fearful to discuss it.”
In the process of grieving, reflecting, and resigning himself to his new realities, Johnson realized how much weight a name can carry and how much of his sense of self was contained in just two small words.
Eric D. Johnson is Fruit Bats. And Fruit Bats is back.
“I’m finding my identity again,” he begins, “which is somehow, weirdly this dumb fake punk rock name that I put on a four-track tape.”
Fruit Bats’ sixth album Absolute Loser represents a triumphant return to name, form, and self. Despite implications, its title refers to the furthest depths of loss itself, rather than the state of those who have lost something. It’s the most honest, most confessional album of Fruit Bats’ career.
Johnson draws from deeply those personal experiences, yet Absolute Loser encapsulates universal themes and emotions. While “My Sweet Midwest” could be taken completely literally, it addresses the holistic nature of finding your center during turmoil. “Baby Bluebird” stings in its portrayal of losing what you never really had. Album closer “Don’t You Know That” is about picking yourself up, even when no one seems to care how far you fell.
Musically, Absolute Loser retains the same structural pop elements that made Fruit Bats so beloved in the first place. Its simple sounding melodies belie such thick musical textures, as some tracks incorporate up to 10 guitar tracks layered on top of each other. Johnson also hearkens back to his days teaching banjo at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, and that instrumentation adds a folksy, Americana spirit to record.
Fruit Bats’ rebirth parallels Johnson’s resiliency, and Absolute Loser is his treaty on how to redefine oneself after tragedy. Although he maintains that he doesn’t have it all figured out quite yet, Johnson acknowledges that with that self-awareness comes some sort of acceptance.
“I am what I am,” he says. “And that’s freeing in a way.”