Early last year, the Washington state band Modest Mouse took an extended trip to Chicago and made a record with Brian Deck, a central figure in the sprawling Windy City musical family that historically centers on the defunct avant-blues group Red Red Meat. When they headed back to Washington (or to Epic Records' Santa Monica offices, whichever came first), they had in their hands the gorgeous, alien The Moon and Antarctica, the band's most compelling artistic statement and the proof that Deck and his shaggy-haired cronies could do what their own increasingly abstract work seemed to doubt: wrangle their busted echo-chamber voodoo into the service of pop songs (albeit ones that take eight minutes to get where they're going and go for a spin around the rings of Saturn on the way there).
On Echolocation, the debut album by the young Chicago outfit the Fruit Bats, Deck and front man Eric Johnson, himself a member of latter-day Red Red Meat offshoot Califone, manage a similar trick, but seemingly in reverse, bundling disparate shards of rustic roots-rock debris and slippery psych-pop reverberations into a package closely resembling a pop record. All the evidence is there: "Need It Just a Little" weaves acoustic-guitar arpeggios into a hazy junkyard lullaby; "Buffalo & Deer" stomps like an outer-space marching band; and "Coal Age" suggests just that with warped banjo and distant slide guitar. Throughout, Deck and Johnson never let the backwoods doodling get too far away from them, keeping the sound effects and jamming potential to a handsome minimum.
Of course, approaching the problem from this end rather than Modest Mouse's practically guarantees a less cohesive and ultimately shallower result, and Echolocation rarely reveals the sonic depths or emotional reserves Antarctica practically wallowed in. But in the currently crowded roots-rock field, it's an effective solution to a common problem, and in any field a pretty good way to make the otherworldly obey gravity.
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