[1 May 2008]
Travel is often regarded as just a means to an end, some unfortunate necessity that prolongs us from getting to our decided destination. For others, the concept of travel and moving from one place to another encapsulates the fun and opportunity of new experiences and taking in the unfamiliar. Ryan McPhun, frontman for the Ruby Suns, has certainly taken in more than most.
Before settling in his adopted home of New Zealand, McPhun spent several years trekking around the globe, spending a considerable amount of time in Thailand and Africa. And while the California native undoubtedly took his fair share of pictures to document his wanderings, it was the sounds picked up by his portable tape recorder that inevitably became his most valued souvenir.
Such wayward field recordings are the jumping-off point for Sea Lion, the latest offering of McPhun and his band. With its title referencing the beach-lounging animal colony found off California’s Highway 1, Sea Lion is all about being someplace other than where you’re supposed to be. Mixing everything from Beach Boys pop, psychedelia, indigenous Kenyan and Polynesian instrumentation, atmospheric tones, and moment capture noise, the Ruby Suns never seem to be confined by the cultural norm of a permanent address.
With a distinct, basement-recorded charm, Sea Lion starts off with the hazy opener, “Blue Penguin”. A coma drifting collage, featuring snippets of a ringing phone, footsteps, chimes, indiscernible crowd conversations, and screaming kids in an indoor pool, the song eventually strums along as though it were coming out of some mellow Hawaiian drug trip (this kind of displacing composition is taken even further later on with the childishly titled “It’s Mwangi in Front of Me”).
Establishing his bearing, McPhun segues from this piece-meal experimentation to more straightforward sun soakers such as “Oh Mojave” and “Tane Mahuta”, the latter song featuring percussive conga drums and sung in a celebratory chorus of New Zealand’s native Maori.
Throughout Sea Lion, McPhun continually draws from his own escapist mentality. Even when he turns vocal duty over to supporting Sun Amee Robinson on “There Are Birds”, McPhun’s lyrics speak of “A place I’d like to go / I want to be alone when / There are birds and it is calm”. In other instances, such as on the standout ballad “Remember”, amidst the song’s Brian Wilson harmonies, sleigh bells, and sleepy spiraling horns, McPhun sings that one should always “Imagine yourself far away / Looking back on what used to be / Life before things had changed / Into what they are”.
In the end, it’s this overarching need for all things foreign and unknown that will determine the album’s final audience. The tipping factor for anyone listening to Sea Lion will be in his or her resilience and willingness to lose sight of home. Even at its most cluttered eclecticism, there are those that will fully embrace the Ruby Suns’ odd, island safari. Others will probably get more enjoyment with the tracks that merely visit the fringe of McPhun’s otherworldly influences. Either way, it makes for one memorable trip.