Release Date: Apr 16, 2013
Record label: Yep Roc
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock
How refreshing to see Born Ruffians return to form after the lackluster Say It (2010). While less enticingly gritty than their 2007 debut, Red, Yellow & Blue, their newest release doesn't suffer from its higher production value. The glossier sheen is more marketable, more immediately palatable. My own predilections for lo-fi aside, this polished iteration offers more musical layers to wade through, a mish-mash of of styles with a cogent through-line -- Mitch DeRosier's fantastic and creative bass lines.
If there were such a thing as an award for "most improved band" in music, Born Ruffians would be worth betting on. While their last album, 2010's Say It, wasn't exactly the equivalent of a season batting around .200 or tossing 20-plus interceptions, it failed to turn heads and keep the momentum of their well-received debut going. For their third act, the Toronto, ON four-piece retreated to a farmhouse for some male bonding, then headed into a studio with producer Roger Leavens.
Three years removed from their last record, Birthmarks is a major step forward for Born Ruffians. Sharp songwriting benefits the Canadian quartet as they seamlessly transition between different styles, while adding brighter vocal melodies to fill out their sound. Whether it’s the feel-good indie-pop of “Needle,” the intricate melodies in “Permanent Hesitation” or the fuzzy synths on “Rage Flows,” the album is their most complete work to date.
Born Ruffians' fourth studio album, 2013's Birthmarks, showcases a more mature and sonically layered sound than the stripped-down approach they took on 2010's Say It. Whereas last time they recorded the album in two weeks with Rusty Santos (Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors), on Birthmarks they worked with producer Roger Leavens (Rural Alberta Advantage) to achieve a slicker, more pop-oriented sound. The change suits lead singer/songwriter Luke LaLonde's laid-back indie crooner style quite well, even if moving toward a more mainstream sound meant that Born Ruffians have also sacrificed some of their rambling, experimental lo-fi leanings.
Ever since Born Ruffians frontman Luke LaLonde introduced his band's self-titled debut in 2006 with the strangled ululations of a pubescent Black Francis, Born Ruffians have adopted a "play it live first, ask questions later" approach that could be endearingly sloppy (2008's Red Yellow & Blue) or exasperatingly sophomoric (2010's Say It). Earlier this year, LaLonde struck out on his own with Rhythymnals, which he worked on with the Rural Alberta Advantage producer Roger Leavens. Besides establishing him as a different kind of mopey singer-songwriter-- the guy that would name his band's next album after his and his girlfriend's matching birthmarks-- the process gave LaLonde production experience that he in turn brought to Birthmarks along with Leavens, and for the first time Born Ruffians recorded songs together in the studio before seeing how they worked onstage.
The first thing that strikes you as you step into Birthmarks, the third album from Midland, Ontario’s Born Ruffians, is the staggering stench of Exactly What The Label Asked For. The honed vocal tics, pitched directly between Noah Lennox, Marcus Mumford and Fleet Foxes. The enormous production so eminently pristine you glimpse your own reflection in the vocals, causing momentary nausea.
It's easy to get stuck in the past when fixating on a band's first album. Born Ruffians, the Toronto-based quartet, is five years later still measured by their wonderful debut, Red, Yellow & Blue. Understandably, the band's sound has changed since then, but it's hard not to yearn for the herky-jerky pop that made their debut so memorable. On their third album, Birthmarks, however, they've definitely chilled out and grown up, sounding more polished and versatile than ever before.
Among several, two main perks of being in a band are the camaraderie and fellowship that come along with playing the music. The long hours spent traveling the road, the opportunities to find trouble in exotic or offbeat locales, and the chance to hang out late into the night writing songs, debating arcane topics, or mindlessly flipping through hotel cable channels are all offshoots of the musical experience. Not having to clock in or report day after day to a demanding boss or group of coworkers is another nice benefit of the lifestyle.
In his review for Born Ruffians’ 2010 album, Say It, our own Chris Coplan anticipated the future for this Canadian four-piece, writing: “without plenty of growth and some emotional diversity…the band will book themselves a one-way ticket to the musical Canadian tundra.” This sentiment, shared by many that heard the lukewarmly received LP, places pressure on their latest effort, Birthmarks. This album follows a simple idea: grow or die. Birthmarks is, largely, the sound of the band learning how to gracefully leave behind pre-pubescent tomfoolery in favor of meatier themes and weightier production.
Let’s take a trip back to the late Noughties, that golden era of indie landfill, when you couldn’t move for the hoardes of skinny-jeaned young men attempting to force spiky guitar riffs down your throat in the hope of being hailed as the next Arctic Monkeys, or dabbling in Afrobeat and calypso to cash in on the Vampire Weekend phenomenon. Some of these bands, such as The Maccabees and The Horrors, have evolved, experimented, and become well-respected mainstays of alternative guitar rock whose latest albums are greeted with frenzied but deserved adulation by large swathes of the music press. Most, however, made a bit of a splash with their debut and then fell by the wayside – what happened, for example, to Good Shoes? Where did Tokyo Police Club go? Born Ruffians’ splash came in 2008 with their debut album Red, Yellow And Blue (though the band had self-released an album four years earlier under the name Mornington Drive).
Born Ruffians followed their astounding post-alt-punk debut ‘Red Yellow And Blue’, with the equally vibrant ‘Say It’. All the elements that had made their first album so charming; the gruff unevenness; the hollering vocals and the DIY-production aesthetic, remained for their second effort, albeit in a more developed and far less full-frontal manner. Luke Lalonde and co’s third album sees them hone their craft and evolve their sound even further, doing so with marked aplomb.From the very first notes of album opener ‘Needles’, it is made plainly clear that ‘Birthmarks’ is unlike anything Born Ruffians have produced thus far.