The Ruby Suns—the project of California-born, New Zealand-residing Ryan McPhun—sound like a trans-Pacific beach party, complete with surfers, beatniks, misfits, and squares all happily mingling at the bonfire. Weenies are roasted, guitars are strummed, hands are clapped, kisses are exchanged, and only the gentlest, mildest drugs are swallowed. Originally a solo project for McPhun after his time in the Brunettes, the Ruby Suns have gone through numerous lineup changes. The current, relatively stripped-down configuration includes fellow multi-instrumentalists Amee Robinson and Imogen Taylor.
Elements of the Ruby Suns' 2005 self-titled debut fit in neatly with the New Zealand rock canon, carrying on the sunny new wave sound made familiar by other Kiwi bands the Clean and the Chills. However, there were Beach Boys undercurrents to many of the songs, and the Suns' brand-new album, Sea Lion, is a full-fledged, brightly colored collage owing more than just a little to Pet Sounds. The influences don't end there, either—the campfire sing-along of "Oh, Mojave" is Roy Rogers by way of Tijuana; the unfortunately titled but fantastically gorgeous "Kenya Dig It?" updates Odessey and Oracle for the laptop era; "Tane Mahuta" is sung in traditional Maori, with Brazilian guitar solos and a clatter of communal percussion. The exotic, fragmented sounds on Sea Lion are breathtakingly joyous, like looking through a photo album of a long-forgotten idyllic summer vacation. It's an inventive and consistently surprising listen.
In the live setting, McPhun alternates between strumming an effects-laden guitar and whacking "In the Air Tonight" fills on a partial drum kit. (Really, this is a good thing; say what you want about Phil Collins, but the dude was a hell of a drummer.) That just three people are able to perform this overdub-heavy material live is no small feat, but it's likely they won't be alone; the massed choruses and layered percussion of Sea Lion virtually demand audience participation. This issue of the Mercury examines the religious views of a variety of musicians [see Feature, pg. 12], but with their incredible new record, the Ruby Suns prove that great music is spiritual in and of itself.