Nick Bollinger explores the Pacifica-delic world of The Ruby Suns.
Ryan McPhun takes the weather with him.
It doesn’t seem to matter if he’s in North America, New Zealand or Norway, his music always conjures up the same tropical tones.
Sprite Fountain is the new album McPhun has made, under his usual banner The Ruby Suns. This time he recorded in Norway, home for the past few years to this American-born, long-time New Zealand-based musician. And yet the landscape is recognisably the one McPhun has been taking us to since he formed his group a dozen-odd years ago.
It’s a welcoming place. Warmth seems to radiate from the kind of melodies Brian Wilson might have left lying around the sandbox after Pet Sounds. Yet rhythmically we’re a long from Wilson’s – and McPhun’s – native California. These are island rhythms, and though it’s hard to give an exact location, it feels like somewhere in the South Pacific. With rumbling boobams and Beach Boy harmonies, it’s a sound both a majestic and exotic.
If the Ruby Suns’ music emits a natural sunniness, it can still seem a bit abstruse, partly because there’s just so much going on. McPhun is a maximalist. He sometimes reminds me of Todd Rundgren in his mid-70s psychedelic phase, around the time of A Wizard A True Star, when he seemed to be throwing as much sound at the tape as possible, just to see if it sticks.
Another reason it can take me a while to get my bearings in a Ruby Suns song is that usual signposts such as vocals are frequently treated as just another instrument. McPhun is a beautiful singer and constructs lush harmonies, but the singing is often competing for my attention with the astonishing chord shifts and fascinating rhythms. Tune in to those vocals, though, and you’ll not only find the heart of the Ruby Suns’ hooks, but also the occasional hint that this isn’t all just some Pacifica-delic fantasy.
‘Pram Gang’, is actually quite domestic and personal - the intimidating experience of being a new parent in a new country. And it’s not the only song here that’s essentially autobiographical. ‘K Road Woody’ seems to be built around images of his Auckland days, while the largely a cappella ‘King Cake’ finds the singer down in New Orleans.
But whatever places Ryan McPhun names in these songs, the place Sprite Fountain takes me is somewhere else entirely. It’s an island of sound, a place of few inhabitants. It’s exotic and strange, but I’m getting to know my way around, and I like it more each time.
Sprite Fountain is available on Lil’ Chief