The Ruby Suns create infectious pop that's part commercial, party arty fringe | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Ruby Suns create infectious pop that's part commercial, party arty fringe

click to enlarge I'm lovin' it: Ryan McPhun of The Ruby Suns
I'm lovin' it: Ryan McPhun of The Ruby Suns

In concert, The Ruby Suns is a rotating cast of musicians built around Ryan McPhun, but on the Suns' three records, McPhun writes and records alone. Though the albums share a pop core, forged with a prismatic sparkle, each takes a different tack, and owes obvious debts to Brian Wilson, the Flaming Lips and -- on the latest, Fight Softly -- Animal Collective.

Though a California resident, McPhun's childhood included visiting his Kiwi father's family in New Zealand and his mother's family in Zimbabwe. In 2003, he moved to Auckland and began playing with New Zealand twee-pop band The Brunettes; in 2004, he formed The Ruby Suns.

After releasing a pretty, self-titled pop album informed by the Beach Boys, McPhun signed to Sub Pop for 2008's Sea Lion, which mixed Afro-pop undercurrents with a shimmering hook-addled psychedelica. Sea Lion was a minor sensation, and snuck onto many year-end Best-Of lists.

In March, the Suns released Fight Softly, which mothballs the psych in favor of heavily synthesized soul-pop, electro and art-rock, seizing upon recent examples set by Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion and Yeasayer's Odd Blood. Bereft of any purely organic sounds, it's at once coldly mechanical and brightly melodic, with plentiful nooks and crannies.

For Fight Softly, McPhun incorporated influences from his childhood, like Michael Jackson and Phil Collins, while also looking to modern pop and hip hop, such as Kanye West, Beyoncé and Britney Spears. The result is a peculiarly dancey vibe, much odder and more self-conscious than its initial inspirations. 

Fight Softly is epitomized by two tracks, "Cranberry" and "Mingus and Pike." The former, an ode to a swimming hole on an island near Seattle, evokes a dreamy oasis with pulsing tribal rhythms worthy of Graceland, tinkling electronics and creamy synth washes. The latter is R&B-flavored track, with a drum sound cadged from '80s pop radio, omnipresent electro-crackle and a synth line reminiscent of Genesis' "Invisible Touch." 

Like zeitgeist-defining peers Animal Collective and Yeasayer, The Ruby Suns' latest coalesces into an intriguing mix of arty fringe and commercial styles that's desperately infectious. At times, McPhun's vocals are overwhelmed by the sputtering, bleeping gadgetry around him; nonetheless, its deep textures and wealth of tones make for a richly rewarding album. 


The Ruby Suns with The Union Line and We Are the Dead. 9:30 p.m. Sun., Oct. 17. Brillobox, 4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. $8. 412-621-4900 or

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