The melodic musings of "Sea Lion" found inspiration in the natural world and Ryan McPhun's travels with in it. With a Dictaphone, he ventured into the wilds of Africa, the ancient monasteries of Thailand, and the haunting landscapes of New Zealand that surround his everyday. It was intended to be a world music album, but reverb and psychedelic pop crept in to create a unique mixture of exotic sounds, accomplished with an impressive array of instruments - from steel-string ukulele to djembe drums to pots and pans - all set upon a cozy cushion of synths and cassette samples.
Review by Andrew Leahey
Having already established his Beach Boys fascination with 2005's self-titled debut, Ryan McPhun reached into his travel journals for Sea Lion, spiking the Ruby Suns' pop/psychedelia with ample amounts of African, Polynesian, and Kenyan instrumentation. The resulting album follows the recent paths of Yeasayer and Vampire Weekend by finding some middle ground between indie pop and world music. Sea Lion is an aural melting pot, with ukuleles and sun-baked singalongs sharing space alongside '80s-styled electronica and programmed percussion. It unfolds in layers, opening with the spacey Hawaiian cadence of "Blue Penguin" before segueing into two of the album's most genuine folk numbers. "Oh, Mojave" and "Tane Mahuta" are as earnest as they are indigenous, the latter featuring polyphonic percussion and elegantly harmonized lyrics sung in the Polynesian dialect of Maori. Throughout it all, McPhun weaves in modern production -- a processed keyboard here, a vocal effect there -- so that by the time "There Are Birds" introduces a bit of hypnotic dream pop into the mix, it hardly sounds out of place. The Ruby Suns still remain heavily indebted to Brian Wilson, but they largely confine themselves to his enigmatic SMiLE period, making heavy use of sleigh bells, vibraphones, and reverb-washed vocals throughout the album's second half. Only when "Morning Sun" takes an abrupt turn into Depeche Mode territory does Sea Lion falter, particularly given its final position in the track list. Listeners are left scratching their heads, wondering where the enigmatic jungle pop music went, only to return to McPhun's sunny sounds once the album reverts back to track one. Culture clashes never sounded so good.
The cover art for the Ruby Suns' sophomore disc, Sea Lion, is a fitting allegory for head Sun Ryan McPhun: A boy on an island takes pains to try to costume himself, tangling himself in lights and string, and wearing a feather in his hair and a crown on his head. McPhun's work as the Ruby Suns functions in much the same way: Stationed on New Zealand's North Island, the California native dresses his work in global music, nibbling at the edges of unfamiliar sounds but, ultimately, skillfully creating sunny psych-pop.
The result is an album of environments, both natural and imagined, hinted at by the cover art's pastel Candyland, the collage of African wildlife on the CD insert, and McPhun's tributes to his home state's Mojave desert and Joshua Trees ("Oh, Mojave"). The album's title refers to the colony of animals that sun in the ocean off of California's Highway 1, and on "There Are Birds", co-vocalist Amee Robinson pines for a world where "there are birds and it is calm." A host of animal references doesn't equate to an environmentally conscious album, but Sea Lion takes to heart quaint state park signage: take only pictures, leave only footprints. The Ruby Suns visit the world via an array of global signifiers-- pinging conga drums, field recordings of animals, slight, sunny harmonies-- but as they do, the band sounds genuinely curious and respectfully adoptive rather than calculating or opportunistic.
Sea Lion, therefore, has a fair amount of clutter-- expect comparisons to musically busy peers like Panda Bear or the Russian Futurists, and to the jumbled orchestral experimentation of Olivia Tremor Control-- but the album's building blocks ooze with a homespun grace. Opener "Blue Penguin" rubs the sleep out of its eyes before grinding a dirty acoustic guitar into overdriven tape. The tender horns on "Remember" are reminiscent of the gentle indie rock of Beulah before introducing a coda of warm, looped sighing. "Adventure Tour"'s high-pitched, descending choruses recall Avey Tare. "Tane Mahuta", sung in indigenous Maori, provides the sole link to McPhun's adopted home, but the song's furious strumming and dewy harmonies are straight from power- and African- (think Tabu Ley) pop.
Sea Lion likely will be pegged a great guitar-pop album, but it's more sonically complex than that suggests. Intriguingly, some of its stylistic conceits-- the 4AD hum of "There Are Birds" or the New Order-via-Graceland second half of "Morning Sun"-- are found on both their most straightforward and best pop moments. Meanwhile, the unfortunately titled "It's Mwangi in Front of Me", and the even worse "Kenya Dig It?", provide the record its most abstract, collage-inspired moments. Sea Lion's one constant is its hard-charging positivity; even songs that begin with a slow drizzle ("Ole Rinka") or hesitant atmospherics ("Blue Penguin") end up as paeans to suns or birds or-- most traditionally-- love. Sea Lion's artwork, song titles, and McPhun's background all suggest something pan-global and yet the album shines brightest when it stays closest to its indie rock roots-- a reminder that despite their escapist charms, exploration and travel work best as an accent to the familiarity and comfort of home.
— Andrew Gaerig, March 7, 2008