Fruit Bats – Sometimes a Cloud Is Just a Cloud: Slow Growers, Sleeper Hits, and Lost Songs (2001-2021)

3 out of 5

Label: Merge Records

Produced by: Various

This is a very sweet compilation of tracks, that map wonderfully to Fruit Bats man Eric Johnsons’s liner notes, explaining the setup: going in backwards chronological order across his career in the band, with some live takes thrown in there, sticking to mostly album stuff on the A- and B-sides of the vinyl, and C- and D- going the demo and home recording route. It’s a very personal tour, not intended as a best of, but rather what Johnson felt best represented the different versions and phases of his songwriting.

Listened to in that regard, Sometimes a Cloud is a beautiful statement, and very emotive: connect those phases (which could be said to shift from being more evasive with his sound and lyrics to more direct and honest) to the songs, traveling back in time from the poppy, sweet and sad opener Rips Me Up – a new track – to the folkified Chicago indie stylings of demos and songs from the era of debut disc Echolocation. Fascinatingly insightful.

Back in the world where we’re listening to this as a straight record, though, it’s a little more wandering. Johnson mostly tends to favor a sedate set of songs, here (some of the shinier stuff gets a reworking to slower and moodier when captured live or in a primordial form), and it becomes clear a few tracks in that these songs don’t “belong” together; they do not necessarily flow as an album. I also feel like the A- and B-sides – the studio-ish work – leans more towards latter day Fruit Bats, which does make sense for an artist compiling the work who feels like they came into their own along the way, but again, if we’re listening to this as an album – and one that covers a career – it ultimately makes the set feel a bit incomplete.

The C- and D-sides are a mixed bag. I think the energy put into these raw tracks is really awesome, with lots of layered vocals and harmonies making it clear that Johnson always had a particular sound for which he was aiming (and has been able to achieve with greater access to grander production), but I don’t know that there are hidden gems amongst the demos so much as pleasant curiosities.

…Which is where I land with this, and why the rating is where it is, because I don’t know that I’ll be listening to it much for pleasure (and, as a side note, the Merge LP pressing is a little noisy…) As a Fruit Bats fan, it’s very fun pairing this with how I have experienced the group over the years, and then with Eric’s expressed feelings about the material, and that makes for a good contemplative listen. …Which fuels a spin every now and then. But I think most of this stuff otherwise works best in context, and when the emotional palette is a bit more varied.