The Ruby Suns: Christopher

The Ruby Suns: Christopher

C+

The Ruby Suns

Album: Christopher
Label: Sub Pop

With each successive Ruby Suns album, frontman and focal point Ryan McPhun has narrowed his focus and watered down his charm. On the group’s 2008 breakout, Sea Lion, the now-New Zealander explored schizoid psych-pop laced with tropical hues; half of the fun was getting lost in the impressionist swirl, never knowing what off-the-wall instrumental flourish or stoned hook might pop up next. But the band’s straight-laced follow-up, 2010’s Fight Softly, downplayed McPhun’s world-music flair and experimental edge in favor of tightly constructed (and largely uniform) synth-pop.

Compared to his early work, McPhun’s fourth studio effort, Christopher, hardly sounds like it was made by the same person. It functions as Fight Softly’s hugely polished, hi-fi sequel, removing every trace of the quirkiness and eclecticism that made his first albums so compelling. Every track uses the exact same sonic template: massive synth pads, fizzy drum machines, and new-wave melodies, harnessing Chris Coady’s expansive engineering as a headfirst springboard into Lake Reverb.

And that’s half the trouble: McPhun may be a gifted melodist (and the proud owner of a handsome falsetto), but his songs constantly struggle for air. The glitzy “Jump In” and soft-rock closer “Heart Attack” work well individually, but lumped into the album’s frustrating one-note pace, they end up squashed by the same homogenous digital-reverb glow; they’re quality songs in search of a quality mix.

Select moments manage to rise above the synth haze: Inspired by a meeting with Swedish electro-pop warrior Robyn, “Desert Of Pop” is a campy, heartfelt tribute to her hypnotic musical gravitas. “Dramatikk” is the album’s definitive heartbeat, as McPhun ventures to the dreamiest parts of his falsetto over a sparse synth arrangement, with melodic runs that feel equally inspired by ’90s R&B and modern electro-pop. Based on these highlights, McPhun’s diminishing returns haven’t dried out entirely. But even if Christopher is almost always functional, it’s almost never essential.