Ryan McPhun of the Ruby Suns is a bit of an anomaly in the music environment he inhabits. Where the far off sounds of exotic locales and the trend-hopping worldbeat movement they’ve spawned have become increasingly fashionable in the current indie scene, most bands who mine these fields are pupils of either dusty used vinyl, modern label reissues, preceding students of said music or, more than likely, internet communities where found treasures are accessible and in abundance. Not McPhun. The frontman — and more or less the only concrete member — of the Ruby Suns has actually spent a majority of his life bouncing around the foreign lands he so affectionately pays homage to in his tunes, and that’s a critical factor in why his music feels so lived in and genuine.
Specks of these influences were found on the Ruby Suns’ self-titled debut, but it was 2008’s Sub Pop release, Sea Lion, where McPhun’s avid cultural interests coalesced fully realized in a sun-baked collage of jungle pop, neo-psych flourishes and spacey ’60s-tinted singalongs. Finding a sort of spiritual home in destinations as removed from our society as Africa, Thailand, and especially New Zealand, the rich presence of culture weaved into McPhun’s songs was so palpable — and so earnest in its sentiments — that he makes current advocates of Afropop seem as American as apple pie. Layering swaths of incandescent, sunny Beach Boys harmonies and a fair amount of pop sensibility, McPhun cleverly laced in enough familiarity with indie’s scrappy-faced audience to retain a certain widespread accessibility, thereby avoiding any concern of alienation that may have existed.
Come 2010, and Sea Lion‘s follow up, Fight Softly, largely abandons much of the organic instrumentation that afforded McPhun’s music such a refreshing jolt on past releases. Gone is the concept of the Ruby Suns as a functional, full-fledged band, leaving all duties down to McPhun himself, as he utilizes a variety of laptop-based aural support that, in worse cases, flattens the impact of his gleeful appropriation of indigenous musical discoveries. This sonic approach was elegantly and sparingly structured throughout Sea Lion, the electronica-sparked atmospherics providing a clashing-yet-complementary contrast to the live instrumentation and the primitive nature found in McPhun’s arrangements. Stripped away of much of the interwoven textural elements that helped give past Ruby Suns records a communal vibe and a living, breathing vitality, Fight Softly feels a little tone-deaf and limited in its grasp. Juxtapositions that once felt exciting now too often rub elbows uncomfortably next to each other when drawn to the foreground on their own, regularly robbing the songs of their ability to revel in their now stunted variety.
Fortunately, these flaws aren’t fatal, and it would be difficult and unfair to dismiss Fight Softly offhand as a completely wasted opportunity. McPhun has such a winning way with a hook that working within his newly restricted space, he’s still able to shine — maybe not as brightly as he had previously, but with diligent, lush melodic gifts intact, he manages to add enough disparity to his shrunken palette to avoid a tepid, uninvested experience. Touching on buzzy bedroom pop, mellifluous R&B jams, reverb-heavy splashes of synth-rock, and swirling psychedelic excursions, McPhun finds ways to make these tracks glisten even if they sometimes discourage the same devotion his past work inspired. The overworked beats and cut-off in growth can’t suppress the swooping, ascending melody lines that help Fight Softly sparkle with an effervescence that’s inviting in its warmth, a testament not only to McPhun’s abilities as a craftsman but a sighing relief to those disheartened with the stuffiness in his abbreviated recording methods.
While hardly acting as a complete departure from previous efforts, the Ruby Suns’ third outing regrettably cuts itself off at the knees too often to be considered either progressive or a total success. However, thanks to Ryan McPhun’s glowing, boyish enthusiasm and his endlessly sincere piety for authentic cultural clashes, he’s able to breathe enough of what made Sea Lion such a dizzying, intoxicated listen into his latest endeavor to keep it from being too harmful a regression of his talents. Hopefully next time out, he’ll cast his intentions out of the bedroom and into the wild with some friends, the way he attained his worldly passions in the first place. Until then, Fight Softly retains just enough spark and spirit to satisfy longtime fans.