The Ruby Suns – Sea Lion

The Ruby Suns
Sea Lion

The cover art for The Ruby Suns’ second album and first to be released in the US, Sea Lion, seems to quiver and chime with little effort. A visit to one of the band’s websites reveals just such movement, the artwork cleverly brought to life through animation, with the little boy in the foreground a crucial part of the natural mobile surrounding him. Based in New Zealand and led by an expatriate Californian, The Ruby Suns delve into a variety of international rhythms, particularly Polynesian and African, and deliver a polychromatic but appreciatively pastel record. The band’s lyrical subjects include the environment and indigenous cultures.

“Blue Penguin” opens Sea Lion, Ryan McPhun’s laid-back singing and the dominant acoustic percussion setting a calm outdoor scene somewhere south of the equator. Are those elephants or merely musical distortions in the background? The Ruby Suns usher in such an inviting, organic vibe that it’s hard to tell. The band soon shifts gears toward Latin America with a different take on Mariachi music for “Oh, Mojave.” African music also pops up on the album, whether through sound (“Ole Rinka”) or more so in name, as with the cleverly titled “Kenya Dig It?” Emphasizing their Kiwi connections, The Ruby Suns sing “Tane Mahuta” entirely in Maori to express their appreciation for the huge tree of the same name in the Waipoua Forest, located in New Zealand’s North Island. Later on Sea Lion, “Adventure Tour” sets to music a memorable drive through the country’s South Island.

Though marked primarily by instruments of the non-Western variety (ukulele, djembe drums, pots, pans), Sea Lion contains a few nods toward early 80s electronic post-punk. The album closer, “Morning Sun,” merges McPhun’s hypnotic claim, “When I wake up / I get the morning sun,” with a sudden burst of Euro-styled synthpop that spans almost three minutes. Coming near the midpoint of “Morning Sun,” the latter portion suits a dark club more than an island hut by the water. The shift in styles is stunning but not jarring. Sea Lion’s other major stylistic deviation finds Amee Robinson on lead vocals for “There Are Birds.” Imagine Ladytron dominating the fourth track on a Rusted Root album. Robinson’s echoed singing and the mix of synthesized and acoustic percussion strangely feel at home amid Sea Lion.

Categorizing The Ruby Suns’ second album isn’t nearly as easy as listening enjoyably to Sea Lion. Its gorgeous artwork conjures up images of Putumayo releases even before the CD begins to spin, but unlike most of that label’s terrific compilations, Sea Lion’s diversity all stems from one artist. Relax, take off your shoes, put on Sea Lion, and soak in The Ruby Suns’ fresh tempos.