all photos: Kimberly Cadena
all words: Phil Runco
“I’m coming up, warts and all, with everyone here.”
Ryan McPhun had begun his final song of the night, “How Kids Fail”. Gentle waves of synths washed over McPhun, whose voice seems perpetually lost in boyish wonder. The serenity was short lived: revved-up snyths tore through the song, only to be met by a stampede of galloping drums. The effect was aural overload. When the bottom dropped out, McPhun’s vocals floated vulnerably, but the clutter of noise was quick to storm back.
If you haven’t been paying attention, The Ruby Suns have moved on.
Gone is the laidback tropicalia of their winsome first two records. Gone are pastoral sound collages. Gone is feeling of floating on some unnamed sea. On Wednesday night, with a set drawn primarily from this year’s Fight Softly, McPhun presented his refashioned aesthetic, warts and all.
Fight Softly is as confused of a record as you’ll hear this year. Songs shift awkwardly from spacey atmospherics to huge, club-ready electronics and back again, as if claustrophobic in their cluttered structures. Nearly everything is smeared neon with slabs of synthesizers and keyboards. There are melodies under it all, but they appear only for moments, like occasional breaks in the clouds.
Performed before a sold-out crowd at Black Cat’s Backstage, McPhun gave the arrangements more room to breathe. Songs’ rhythmic backings were enhanced, due largely to fortified line-up featuring a proper drummer, albeit one aided with an oft-used drum pad. Synths still hung high in the mix, but allowing percussive elements to lead – rather than compete – lent songs a steadier dynamic.
Of Fight Softly’s songs, the livelier fared best. A playfully 80s dance beat carried the surging “Haunted House”. Album standout “Cranberry” segued from a carnivalesque intro into the strongest vocal performance of the night, the kind of joyous, cascading melody usually heard from the mouth of Noah Lennox. In these moments, you could hear Fight Softly‘s fusion of tropical and European styles come closer to fruition.
But not everything from the album emerged as fully formed. “Cinco” and “Mingus and Pike” remained muddled. While a welcome reprise, the navel-gazing “Closet Astrologer” never took off.
When The Ruby Suns revisited older material, songs were given an electro makeover with surprising ease. “Oh Mojave” was reinforced with the skittering techno beat and ended with all three member joining in on a percussive freak-out. Sampling horns and banjo, “Tane Mahuta” banged with equal momentum. When band closed its set with the successful reimaging of the swinging “Kenya Dig It”, it became clear that McPhun was onto something; something that married the spaciousness of Sea Lion with aggressiveness of Fight Softly. If he’s able to figure it out next record, the growing pains of Fight Softly will have been worth it.
Growing pains are not something being afforded to opener Chaz Bundick. At 23, Bundick, who records and tours as Toro Y Moi, has found himself gaining significant attention as one of the backward-looking artists grouped together as chillwave.
But, if you’re reading this, you probably already knew that. I mean, shit, my iTunes already knew that. It told me Toro Y Moi was chillwave. Allow me to repeat: iTunes has a chillwave genre tag.
The application of the label shortchanges Bundick to a certain degree. His beats showed a greater range than contemporaries Neon Indian and Washed Out, incorporating R&B and hip-hop with electro hallmarks of 80s synths, congas, and vocal loops. The resulting composition often succeeded in creating hypnotic trances. And the audience ate it up: nearly a head resisted a nice, slow banging. How else to show you’re really feeling it?
But as Bundick’s thin falsetto cooed over the slow jams, his intonations either wordless or the loops and reverb distorting them to the point where they might as well have been wordless, I had to wonder: is it this easy for style to triumph over substance? Or, more succinctly, is it just this easy? Because nearly all of this was done six years ago on the Junior Boys’ Last Exit, and they did it with actual songs.
Then again, maybe I should cut him a break and allow him the benefit of time