The Ruby Suns

Sea Lion

(Sub Pop; 2008)

By Dom Sinacola | 6 May 2008

Endlessly snookered by echo and drenched in bliss, Sea Lion is a geodesic dome of Californian-cum-New Zealander Ryan McPhun’s scattered influences; built from triforces of, shit, almost everything, McPhun and current Ruby Suns bandmates Amee Robinson and Imogen Taylor accomplish, on the dot, what their New York City trendsetting ilk can only orbit: as their physical girth expands their melodies and arrangements grow stronger, lending enough focus to regionally disparate sounds that the whole ends up a salient piece of big pop, as cohesive as any strictly “lo-fi” speakerfuck to come out of Los Angeles in a long while.

Let’s rewind briefly: McPhun, himself a documented globetrotter and transplant, is not shy about the genres and cultures that speak through his folk-tinged wanderings. In about forty minutes, Sea Lion treads faucet’d swirls through North America, winding clockwise from the choral folk of Appalachia south into the chiming, horn-driven finger-picking of the Mexico-U.S. border, then swooping up into and through the West Coast, where surf makes way for the tenuous line between four-track, cloudy DIY and complex, electro-polyrhythm that the Pacific Northwest wades between; the sojourn doesn’t stop there, though, it heads back east, touches over and over on psych (corn-, Bunyan-, and Fridmann-fed), on AOR, on shoegaze as it crosses the great plains, makes a brief detour, again, through the post-punk, new-wavy underground of the Big Apple, then fucking cores through the earth, popping up in Africa and pinging coast to coast. This means highlife and Malian folk from the east or Kenyan afro-fusion (yeah, that bloated) from the west, all of it free-falling into South African Mbube, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, or maybe that’s just gospel music I’m hearing, Polynesian ukulele brightening up the edges. What else? I’m probably forgetting something. Did I mention that one song is sung in Maori? I googled that shit.

None of this is supposed to act as an AAA triptik of the album’s layout: I know Vashti Bunyan isn’t from Kansas and I know the last moments of closing track “Morning Sun” seem ripped straight out of a Depeche Mode radio hit instead of from the imposing “canon” of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole or whatever. But where some of the Suns’ contemporaries—blog heroes that will go unnamed—act the tourists to their regional touchstones, ending up too kitschy, gimmicky, or cynical, McPhun just seems comfortable, never co-opting African rhythms, just respecting them, despite what the redonkulous song names may suggest. Partly it’s because Sea Lion turns out all its seams until it’s simply a humble power pop album (“Blue Penguin” simmers in a shallow pool of Musique concrète and gothic closed chords before reaching into a cloud of ever-rising voices; stupid pretty “There Are Birds” follows Robinson and wooden train-track percussion into a Headlights high of sugary harmony, hi-hats and tambourines bristling all around.) and partly because of all the echo filling every available space, self-referential as it tempers the kitchen sink euphoria into a pleasant, sonorous din. The chimes that stab and radiate through the opening of “Ole Rinka” or the ramshackle acoustic that pans frequently across the wonderful “Adventure Tour” are just reminders of the heft of the album as a whole, as if McPhun knew he was pushing the boundaries of palatable genre-cornering and decided to turn the deal inward, moving the flutes and bird noises and cheery synths toward something resiliently familiar. It’s got what EIC Scott Reid calls a “great vibe.” Exactly.

Which is why Sea Lion never balks at its worldwide spelunking, just keeps the needle pointed at accessible melody, of which each song successfully boasts. Simple as that: this, their sophomore release and first for Sub Pop, is shamelessly gorgeous, totally in control of every threatening exigency and bombastic color. Even when “It’s Mwangi in Front of Me” or “Morning Sun” relent too easily to wanky found noise the album never loses pace, just patiently waits for the surrounding environment to manifest, for a place—amidst the international fever—to come all its own.

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