It’s a rare thing to discover a band capable of writing a song with lyrics entirely in the Maori language. In fact, until now, I’m fairly certain not a single record I owned could boast such a claim. Yet on “Tane Mahuta,” the third track on The Ruby Suns’ Sub Pop debut Sea Lion, frontman and sole permanent member Ryan McPhun, along with Amee Robinson, delivers a sweet and beautifully harmonized vocal in Maori. The funny thing about that song, though, is that it doesn’t sound the slightest bit foreign. It’s exotic, for sure, offering a glimpse of paradise in its mélange of hand percussion, accordion, acoustic guitar and glorious voice harmonization. Even though the words may be unfamiliar, it comes off as warm and universally appealing.
A feeling of communal celebration is central to The Ruby Suns’ music and history. McPhun, a native Californian, formed the band in New Zealand in 2004, in addition to playing part time in The Brunettes. On Sea Lion, that cross-Pacific (and Atlantic) influence plays a major role. With a nod to ’80s Kiwi indie icons such as the Chills, American lo-fi indie rock of the ’90s, some Tropicalia, and, like similar-minded popsters Vampire Weekend, some African influence as well. It’s a melting pot—that’s for certain. But rather than sounding scattered, McPhun & Co. combine their vast, global influences into simply a brilliant pop record.
Unfolding slowly with a dusty, atmospheric introduction, leadoff track “Blue Penguin” takes shape into a lazily warm folk pop track, with shuffling percussion and Beach Boys-like vocals. It softly descends into a feedback squeal, with sounds of playing children in the background (at least that’s what it sounds like anyhow). On “Oh, Mojave,” handclaps are everywhere and, in tribute to the citizens just south of his homeland, McPhun, along with his merry troubadours, offer lyrics in Spanish, kicking up some Southwestern dust and a sound that’s nothing if not purely joyous.
While Sea Lion may initially present itself as a model U.N. of perfect pop, deeper into the album there emerge more straightforward, yet still mesmerizing, new wave pop tunes such as “There Are Birds,” on which Robinson shows her songwriting and singing chops. Likewise, “Remember” is less steeped in island culture than it is in Brian Wilson, its gorgeous melodies coming off as a Pet Sounds outtake rather than a pale imitation. With horns, accordion and vibraphone stirring up a lovely ambience, the song is a truly outstanding ballad. “Adventure Tour” finds McPhun crooning about a drive through New Zealand’s South Island while creating a sonic adventure of his own in the process.
Dorky though the title may be, “Kenya Dig It?” (okay, it’s kinda funny) is absolutely stunning. Beginning with a beefed up rhythm section, its muscular tone ultimately slinks into a gorgeous blend of danceable rhythms, Talk Talk-like soundscapes, new wave synthesizers on a terrain both mysterious and inviting. The album closes with “Morning Sun,” a meditative mantra-like repetition of “When I wake up I get the morning sun,” with soothing and dense layers of samples sweeping underneath McPhun’s vocals. It’s not unlike Panda Bear’s “Comfy In Nautica” in its circular repetition, but unlike that songs energetic awakening, it feels more like a lullaby; an exhausting and overwhelming lullaby that, in a truly surprising turn of events, transforms into a high energy synth pop track.
Ryan McPhun has made his way around the world, and as Sea Lion demonstrates, he has certainly learned quite a bit in the process. Yet, while his music incorporates elements of other cultures, no one song seems tied to a very specific place. Instead, it truly is a melting pot, bringing together different ideas to create a triumphant and welcoming blend. For once, the term `world music’ seems truly apt.
MP3: “Tane Mahuta”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.