An interesting fact about Fruit Bats singer and songwriter Eric Johnson is that he formerly taught at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. This gets me excited because while I understand and appreciate the historical importance of folk music, the use of the term "modern folk" in the last 10 years bothers me, and with Johnson captive on the phone I ask how modern folk songs differ from other folk songs.

"You know, I think it's all kind of a crock--the notion of modern folk," he says. "I've talked about this with the teachers at that school, the administrators, and even some of the old-timers who started the school, and no one's come up with an answer, and all of those people are 'folk theory people' and folk is their life. I think that modern music is called folk because it has an acoustic guitar in it.

"It's really weird," he continues, "I taught this punk rock class and a Clash class. The [other teachers] weren't really up in arms, but they said, 'Wow, that's not a folk music band,' and they were having classes on the Eagles and crap like that. I feel like there are so many more strings attaching the Clash to Woody Guthrie than the Eagles to Woody Guthrie, but because the Eagles have an acoustic guitar and sing 'peaceful easy' music they get lumped into the whole folk rock thing." He adds that he doesn't really care for the music that gets labeled as part of the "modern folk scene," and that if you look up folk in the dictionary, it's just a simplistic musical form usually played by people of a certain ethnic group. "That can mean anything," he says. "It can mean banging on an elephant tusk, or what we as Americans know as this style--stringed instruments playing music deriving from the old British folk music mix of, like, African spirituals, and that's where rock 'n' roll came from anyway." He says all rock 'n' roll is folk music, whether or not it has a pop element to it: "It all pretty much comes from the same place and you can chase it back to two dudes in, like, 1850 or something."

Mouthfuls, Johnson's second album as Fruit Bats (which also includes Gillian Lisée on keyboards and vocals), comes off like pop that's been lazing in the sun for a while--bright but a little bit burned and tender, too. Early on, "A Bit of Wind" sounds like the Hollies, as electric and acoustic guitars meander on separate paths. ("Track Rabbits" tugs at the heart Hollies-like, too, with its layers upon layers of la-la harmonies.) Halfway through, the lyrics cease and a huge wall of horn sounds, mandolin, and crashing drum cymbals ride the song out, treating the listener to a full minute of near-symphonic majesty. The song seems to be a less-than-gentle warning to be aware of what goes on around you: "It takes leviathans down in the abyss/It takes the hidden messages of the things that you missed/It takes mouthfuls of Niagara Falls." At the same time, it feels like a love song. To Johnson, it's a song about the apocalypse. "It's basically about movin' your ass, really--'It takes this to get you to this.' Originally this was going to be a concept album about motivation, but it never ended up happening. That song and 'The Little Acorn' are the two that survived. The concept was supposed to be a little book of absurdist directives. But you can think of them as love songs," he assures me, "or big romantic statements about an apocalypse that will motivate you to do the things you've always wanted to." Sweet.

"The Little Acorn" is almost as cryptic, but I thought I'd become attuned to Johnson's language when he sings, "Drop a feather in the water/What the ocean gives the sky will take/Killing swans with 21 guns/Just to see them fall into the lake." With its earlier mention of waitresses who've "all got longing in their eyes," I venture the opinion to Johnson that "The Little Acorn" is a sad song, but he says that's not the case.

Okay, so Johnson and I are in ready agreement on something and it's that Mouthfuls is not modern folk, as some critics have deemed it. "Some of the reviews of Mouthfuls prove that people just don't get it," he sighs. "Some reviews have said it's 'country stomping,' or 'good time country music,' and a guy at Pitchfork actually ripped us by saying, 'He's a Northerner trying to sing with a Southern accent.' What? I've never tried to sing with a Southern accent." Summing up, Johnson says, "People hear whatever they want to hear. If people were like, 'Fruit Bats' Mouthfuls is a dark wave of metal!' or 'It's the best new hiphop record of the year!' I wouldn't be shocked."

kathleen@thestranger.com