Release Date: Jan 29, 2013
Record label: Sub Pop
The Ruby Suns’ Ryan McPhun has always been willing to challenge, ape and progress the zeitgeist in equal measure, but the band’s fourth release, Christopher, falls flat despite containing one of this year’s (possibly this decade’s) finest pop songs with its opener “Desert of Pop.” Turn this one up loud and melt while soft keyboards and synthetic backing vocals harmonize and sigh gloriously. McPhun lets everything out unabashedly, succinctly. Put this on repeat for a year.
The Ruby Suns’ fourth album attempts to play the big, bold and giddy pop card. And well it might; Ryan McPhun and co. have sunk under the radar consistently for the last few year, despite reasonable critical success. Following their last major release, Fight Softly in 2010, McPhun decamped to Oslo, Norway following the end of a relationship, and it’s in that Nordic city where he found inspiration for Christopher.
If someone was to put together a line-up of underappreciated acts from the past decade, The Ruby Suns would surely head the queue. Band foreman Ryan McPhun’s first three full length releases encapsulated a swathe of genres, played out with a sense of fidgety, untameable curiosity. In particular, the unkempt Amazonian rhythms of 2007’s Fight Softly showcased a mastery of percussive-based melodies which, live, was made all the more hypnotic by McPhun’s limb-combusting stage presence.
Sometimes you need a breather from searing riffola and head straight for the territory marked ‘fey as hell’. It’s usually fiercely guarded by the likes of Destroyer, Passion Pit, Junior Boys and anyone else who thinks intelligent pop peaked in 1986, but The Ruby Suns (pretty much a one-man band – New Zealand’s Ryan McPhun) have a worthy flag to plant. ‘Christopher’ is all dreamy lushness with synths that range all the way from zappy to squashy.
The Ruby Suns' founder and only consistent member, Ryan McPhun has seemed to use his band's kaleidoscopic pop platform as a sounding board for his life experiences. Early albums centered on themes of travel and discovery, filtering international rhythms through woolly effects-heavy indie and rushing through the doors of sample-pop that Animal Collective opened in the mid-2000s. Released in 2010, Fight Softly saw him reconfiguring the project with a synth-heavy bedroom electro sound, dropping some of the freakier elements for digital sheen and subsequently dropping all previous collaborators, opting to record the album entirely by himself.
Ryan McPhun admits within the first minute of the Ruby Suns' new album, Christopher, that he's always falling in love. It's hard to dispute, since he spends the rest of "Desert of Pop" enumerating ways to relate the feeling: He's "like a birthday boy, giddy and excited" over someone or something that hits him like "a single malt, pure agave tequila. " The good stuff, y'know? But there's one line that doesn't sit quite right: "You are [a] cold glass of water in the desert of pop.
Following 2010’s Fight Softly, on which frontman Ryan McPhun largely ditched the ramshackle psychedelic-tropic grooves of Sea Lion for a more experimental, electronica-inspired approach, the Ruby Suns’ Christopher represents the most cumbersome conversion of their sound yet. Attempting to broaden the band’s reach with an arena-worthy album that infuses modern mainstream pop with a synthy 1980s-era aesthetic, Christopher is a radically inconsistent work, containing only a couple of truly memorable melodies while the remainder is a mixed bag of slow-burning love songs. The seductively astral tones and fervent sentimentality of the opening track, “Desert of Pop,” prove to be quite captivating.
Ryan McPhun's second album as the Ruby Suns after deciding the project was a solo venture and not a band effort is the newest step in his musical evolution. Any trace of the world music, psychedelic or folk elements that flavoured Ruby Suns' early recordings has been erased and replaced with slick synth sounds and bubbly beats. Perhaps influenced by McPhun's recent move from New Zealand to Norway, the instrumentation is icy, the only warmth coming via his gentle, high-pitched vocals.
The only constant in the Ruby Suns, Ryan McPhun, worked with Chris Coady to make Christopher, the Suns’ fourth album. Coady’s worked with Beach House and Gang Gang Dance, which explains why Christopher sounds like a second-rate version of both of those bands. If you really want to know about Christopher, here it is: a largely unambitious electro-dance album that doesn’t work on electronic or dancing levels (exceptions, of course there will be exceptions).
The Ruby Suns’ Ryan McPhun made his reputation as a restless world traveler and musical polyglot. His ability to synthesize eclectic musical traditions into compelling indie pop catapulted The Ruby Suns into the ranks of artists like Panda Bear and Vampire Weekend back in 2007. But while McPhun’s continent-hopping ways have not changed since the Suns’ breakout sophomore album, Sea Lion, the returns on his travels have become exponentially less compelling.
“I never want to live in real life,” Ryan McPhun trills at the chorus of Christopher‘s second track and he isn’t kidding around. Every sound and word on The Ruby Suns’ fourth album is a barricade against both the harshness and depth of the adult world. On Christopher — the Auckland term for the awkward, hormonal person you were before you learned how to not be awful — McPhun wanders a world bounded by rubbery beats, shivery arpeggios, and waterlogged stabs of synths.
Sometimes listening to an album is akin to cooking up a well-made risotto. You have to sample a record carefully before putting it on the back-burner to simmer away and intensify. Each time you listen to the album after that, the process requires a little patience, letting each slop of musical stock absorb fully to draw out the flavoursome goodness before you make a judgment.