On 2008’s solid Sea Lion, New Zealand’s Ruby Suns were perhaps the first band to do tropicalia pastiche convincingly, paving the way for world-music minded peers like the Very Best and others. With the band’s third album, Fight Softly, Ruby Suns become the first band to blend the electronics of European dance with the stasis of chillwave (which if you haven’t heard, is hotter than shit, still). It’s definitely a shrewd move, since Fight Softly is basically a less-than-stellar Panda Bear album, but it’s also a move in the wrong direction. Ruby Suns were poised to take their world music tendencies big time, but with Fight Softly they turn inward for an album that is heavy on navel gazing and light on actual songs.
Opener “Sun Lake Rinsed” creates a guiding aesthetic for the rest of the album: The synths are tuned to a setting between icy and Chinese water torture, the drums are blown out and lead singer Ryan McPhun’s warble is set to maximum reverbed quaver. Too often this combo leads to fast -tempo chillwave D-sides (basically the entire second half of the album) that don’t go anywhere particularly interesting; they mostly just fold in on themselves messily after an appropriate running time. Granted, sometimes this sound leads to songs that bring to mind the distant Sea Lion, particularly the Animal Collective-meets-‘90s-dance-throb “Cinco,” the John Hughes-ready “Closet Astrologer” and the globe-hopping bounce and swagger of lead single “Cranberry.” But those songs are overshadowed by what surrounds them, and are undone by same general murkiness that kills the rest of the album.
It’s probably too early to start talking about Ruby Suns as a hyper-text-ed flash on the processor, but there’s something gone wrong here. This band seemed so effortlessly global, so defiantly jovial, and so forward-thinking just two years ago, creating a welcome-all-comers, big-tent-approach to world-pop. With Fight Softly they seem so out of sync, so bland and so disappointing.
Known for their combination of psych pop and world music (notably Kenyan influences), the Ruby Suns center around multi-instrumentalist Ryan McPhun. Originally conceived as a world music album, Sea Lion was released in 2008 and ended up on many Best Of lists for the year as well as having one of its tracks, “Oh, Mojave,” featured in a Microsoft commercial. Fight Softly shoots for another purpose, a different sound, and an overall fun and straightforward vibe suited more for a club atmosphere.