It has been said that travel expands your mind, excites your senses, and feeds your soul, but most spend their exotic vacations vainly chasing after fellow traveling ass or blitzed out of their heads. Listening to The Ruby Suns, it is obvious that head Sun Ryan McPhun has spent his away time wisely, soaking up the local and national sounds of far-flung places instead of getting high in his hostel. His band's latest album, Sea Lion, is a curious hodgepodge of Polynesian and African rhythms, Pacific Rim and Maori influence, Mexi-minstrel finger-picking, and California psychedelia. It is also one of the finest albums issued this year.
Previously involving a rag-tag crew of collaborators and known as Ryan McPhun and The Ruby Suns, the band has now settled into a trio, with Amee Robinson, Imogen Taylor, and McPhun playing simply as The Ruby Suns. Regardless of title or composition, they play a hypnotic brand of modern pop, often incorporating "world music" instrumentation, vocal manipulation, and wildly converging percussion using pots and pans, sticks and stones, or whatever sound two close-at-hand objects hit together in a rhythmic fashion can make.
“Tane Mahute” is a good example of this inventiveness and acquires extra points for being sung in Maori. The mellow starter "Blue Penguin" evokes a woozy state, similar to falling asleep in the bath with a bellyful of Vicodin. Elsewhere, at least three songs on Sea Lion are inspired by McPhun’s African adventures: “Ole Rinka,” “It’s Mwangi in Front of Me,” and, er, “Kenya Dig It,” the last of which is a marvel -- shimmering shoegaze pop and a tough Peter Hook-like bassline pave the way for lovely Zombies/Beach Boys/Person Pitch vocal passages. “Ole Rinka” (inspired by a McPhun encounter at the Maasai Mara National Reserve) is all lullaby until a coda of wicked bass and military drum rolls kicks the song out of its cozy slumber. No matter where you think you are, everything on Sea Lion takes you somewhere unexpected.
For all the foreign influence and exotic feelings it produces, Sea Lion is a pop album, most of which was penned using simple acoustic guitar arrangements, played by two hands constantly searching for hooks with their strums, picks, and shapes. “There Are Birds” (refreshingly led by Robinson) sounds like The Magnetic Fields crossed with Pixies, or, better yet, like The Heavy Blinkers, who know a thing or two about properly channeling the Brothers Wilson. Yes, despite the far-reaching locales and New Zealand residence, you cannot completely take the California out of McPhun. Throughout the album, there is plenty of West Coast harmony action, and “Oh Mojave” is an ode to McPhun’s home state, done in a mariachi or jarocho style. Conversely, there are a lot of slower, spacey numbers; “Remember,” the aforementioned “It’s Mwangi In Front of Me,” and “Blue Penguin” all roll out that lazy, hazy-days-of-summer vibe.
Sea Lion ends with “Morning Sun,” a track that sounds like it was recorded in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary. Halfway through, it jumps feet-first into the electro-pop arena of yesterday (The Rosebuds) or yesteryear (White Town) or yesterdecade (The Icicle Works) – take your pick. It is a bizarre ending to the album, yet it's also completely in sync, dependent on disparate sounds and cavalier attitude. It is also a good indicator of how the album seduces you; it sounds like everything yet nothing, and while you can say that about a lot of bands these days, there is something special about The Ruby Suns.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is knowing that the album was recorded in an Auckland basement, because it often sounds like it was done “in the field.” Sea Lion is an unassuming album that should be buckling under the weight of its ambition, but it comes off laidback and assured. It sounds influenced by real-life experiences rather than dorm-room dreaming, but probably has more to do with immaculate ideas transformed into quality, charismatic songs. Sea Lion is a delight.