What did you bring back from your travels? Most of us settle for handful of seashells, but Ryan McPhun, the chief songwriter and creative core of Ruby Suns, stuffs melodies and bits of percussion, ethnic imagery and found sounds into his voluminous pockets. Hence, while the California native washes his music in bright Beach Boys harmonies, he also incorporates bits of Maori singing, from his adopted New Zealand home, Kenyan drums from his forays into Africa, the clink of bells and chimes from Asian monasteries and the dreamy half-heard sounds of conversations, crowds and the natural world into his work.
The question really, though, is this: traveler or tourist? Much of Sea Lion has a glossy, indie-experimental sheen, only lightly touched by its ethnic influences. With its big washes of sound and playful choruses, it sounds a good deal like the last Panda Bear record, but lighter, easier and less full of depth. The surfaces shimmer with rainbow-y, soap bubbly colors...but is there much of substance underneath? The same can be said for the more overtly world-tinged tracks. "Oh, Mojave" has a joyful island lilt in its strummed guitars and syncopated, sandpapery rhythms, but it feels derivative...a plastic lei from the airport lounge.
"Tane Mahute," derived from the oppressed Maori culture of New Zealand, is more resonant, its jangling, clanking rhythms shuffling in loose hedonism around group-sung, exuberant choruses. "Ole Rinka," named for a Masai tribeman McPhun met in Kenya, is, by contrast, sparse and melancholy, faint field recordings hissing against a fragile melody. And "Kenya Dig It" abandons ethnic sounds altogether for a shimmery, multi-voiced daydream of abstract pop, lovely and strange like Sung Tongs-period Animal Collective.
Overall though, Sea Lion seems a bit bloodless and thin, evoking the places McPhun has been as a traveler and as a musician without letting us know why they matter to him. Like a faded postcard or an overlong slideshow, this ethnic-flavored pop album elicits a shrug and a yawn. No one is ever as interested in your trip as you are.