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***“The Pet Parade,” the title track to Fruit Bats’ newest album, might be a surprising opening track for longtime fans of Eric D. Johnson’s beloved indie folk-rock project. The six-and-a-half-minute tone poem smolders and drones over just two chords, inspired by the strange and silly community events that he saw growing up outside of Chicago, in La Grange, Illinois, in which people dressed up and showed off their pets. Decades later, The Pet Parade emerges in troubled times, living within what Johnson refers to as the beauty and absurdity of existence. While many of the songs on The Pet Parade were actually written before the pandemic, it’s impossible to disassociate the record from the times. As an example, producer Josh Kaufman (Bob Weir, The National, and Bonny Light Horseman, in which he plays with Johnson and Anaïs Mitchell) was brought in for his deep emotional touch and bandleading abilities. However, Johnson, Kaufman, and the other musicians on The Pet Parade—drummers Joe Russo and Matt Barrick (The Walkmen, Fleet Foxes), singer-songwriter Johanna Samuels, pianist Thomas Bartlett (Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens), and fiddler Jim Becker (Califone, Iron & Wine)—were forced to self-record their parts in bedrooms and home studios across America. Still, says Johnson, “The songs have enough intimacy that it doesn’t sound like it was made a million miles away.”