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The Ruby Suns
Fight Softly Barnaby Smith , March 4th, 2010 13:45

Consistency has been a problem for Ryan McPhun ever since he left his native California to set up camp in New Zealand in 2004. On previous Ruby Suns album Sea Lion, the likes of 'Kenya Dig It', 'Tane Mahuta' and 'Oh Mojave' stood out miles above the rest. His self-titled first record, more or less a shameless Beach Boys tribute, was a similarly frustrating listen. For Fight Softly, his first album for Sub Pop, it seems that McPhun sat down for a long, hard think about where to go next - he's achieved a finer equilibrium here between the stellar and the staid than ever before, although a truly perfect balance still eludes him.

The gimmicky world music façade and emphasis on McPhun's 'field recordings' that accompanied Sea Lion are this time overwhelmed by a new devotion to synth, ambient effects and intricate songwriting. His partiality for a good pseudo-tribal beat remains though, as the pulsing drums to the impressive 'Cranberry' attest.

The result of this evolution of McPhun's sensibilities is that he often sounds so ridiculously like Animal Collective, or more specifically Panda Bear, as to suggest a deliberate attempt at zeitgeist grabbing. Along with 'Cranberry', 'Mingus and Pike' and 'Olympics On Pot' have those familiar muffled vocals and cascading, illogical melodies, as well as that same sense of mystery about how such alien sounds can come from one beardy man standing over a box with wires coming out of it.

The thing about Animal Collective though, is that while they use all manner of technological gymnastics to achieve their 'intergalactic folk' sound, they actually begin the writing of all their songs using more familiar instruments like guitar and piano. One wonders whether McPhun is the same. If not, perhaps herein lies the reason for his hit-and-miss nature. Fight Softly often feels like he is starting with the sound or atmosphere he wants before searching for a song to fit it, rather than allowing the elaborate density of his production to be the mere vehicle for melody. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that approach in itself and when McPhun gets it right it is nigh on spectacular, but the fact is that some of these songs are top-heavy, without the body or weight of Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Thematically, McPhun has tapped into what is approaching a modern trend (best articulated on Yeasayer's recent Odd Blood) for innocent expression of affection, and sincerity verging on the sentimentality. It is often impossible to recognise the words that McPhun's soft tenor is singing, enhancing the idea that his overriding joy is simply to play with sounds of all kinds.

Many have criticised the Ruby Suns in the past for what might be seen as an affected mish-mash of genres, what with McPhun's electronica crossed with his attempts at 'exotic' world music. Such vitriol is harsh, and anyone who has held off appreciating McPhun's considerable gifts would do well to give Fight Softly a chance: it's a satisfyingly un-pretentious record.