I haven’t cared much for this whole Brian Wilson revival trend in indie rock. I can admit to not caring about alternate universes where Pet Sounds was more influential than Sgt. Pepper’s, and even hoped that, following the releases of Merriweather Post Pavillion and Veckatimest, the mini-movement would have simultaneously reached its creative peak and its saturation point. Shame on me. The Ruby Suns performs their own channeling of Wilson’s layered sonics—spiked, as the above two albums are, with ample doses of psychedelia—and while their third album, Fight Softly, hasn’t quite hit on anything new under the shimmering pop sun, it’s a capable display of borrowing and synthesizing that should help to differentiate the Suns from complacent trend-followers who draw on similar influences.
The tropical inflections that predominated on 2008’s Sea Lion are still a major touchstone here, and are joined by Afro-pop melodies and other world music curios to liven up the Suns’s compositions, which otherwise tend toward the lackadaisical. That won’t surprise anyone familiar with the group’s past material. What might is songwriter Ryan McPhun’s new preoccupation with synth-pop and digital processing. Every song on Fight Softly is soaked in reverb and adorned with sampled instruments (think processed marimbas and vocodered didgeridoos), and McPhun’s own singing receives no insubstantial amount of electronic doctoring. It’s a lot of contrivance, sure, but McPhun isn’t attempting a diversion from a batch of so-so songs, he’s merely out to entertain, and he mostly succeeds.
The hypnotic “Mingus and Pike” glows with summertime nostalgia, and the playfully eerie “Haunted House” is so much fun you’ll be sad that you only have two-and-a-half minutes to play in it. That standout is immediately followed by another: the stop-starting “How Kids Fail,” constructed around a muscular, somewhat distorted synth rush that appears to drive the song along every time you think it’s faded out for the last time. When the big hook is coupled with McPhun’s clattering drums, the track goes from catchy to absolutely propulsive.
Where the album falters is on tracks like “Closet Astrologer,” which overextends its amiable vibes by a few too many minutes, and “Two Humans,” which buries its best ideas under too much sonic chatter. That number, and the lackluster “Dirty Fruit,” come immediately on the tail of the “Haunted”/“Kids” duo, a disappointing comedown that suggests that Fight Softly has run out of steam. Fortunately, the Suns rally for the closer, propping “Olympics on Pot” up on restless percussion and a gently sung chorus. Too often, McPhun’s gadgeteered vocals come across as a digital effect competing for attention with the rest, but for the final track he musters enough sweet and subtle expressiveness to prove that studio processing, even when used somewhat heavily, need not rob singers of their humanity.
There’s no saying how long McPhun has contemplated his foray into electronica, but promising as the best results turn out, his timing could certainly have been better. After a year bookended by widely loved releases from Animal Collective and Neon Indian, Fight Softly may find itself judged harshly just for failing to meet the standards of its peers. That would be unfair, because the album isn’t reducible to either of those two releases (or any other), but mostly unwise, since it would mean sacrificing a perfectly good pop record on the altar of invidious comparison.