[2 March 2008]
Born Ruffians is on the up and up. The young Toronto band has mostly charmed critics with its two EPs to date, but guess what? Get past Luke Lalonde’s reedy voice and the yelping singalong tendencies in backing vocals and it’s clear the group is onto something: their debut album Red, Yellow and Blue is a consistent, and consistently unexpected, pleasure.
The band burst onto the (online) scene with a bit of trickery: “This Sentence Will Ruin/Save Your Life”, two-and-a-half minutes of barely-contained joy, revving itself up with “hey-hey-hey” yelps. What wasn’t immediately obvious was that the spare guitar-bass-drums setup was a neat bit of bait-and-switch. “I need a girlfriend, I’m lonely” hit squarer due to the simple, cycling 1-2 chords. After that, we’d forgive again that staid reinterpretation of Grizzly Bear’s masterpiece “Knife” on the Hummingbird EP just out of goodwill. The confidence is repaid, not only because “Hummingbird is a cheeky appropriation of some common indie rock tropes, but that the appropriation’s so carefree and, yes, likeable.
If you took Vampire Weekend’s melodic sensibility (the clean, simple melody and bass lines), threw in a serving of Animal Collective’s late-period experimental pop joy, and laid something like Alec Ounsworth’s pointed voice over the top, you might end up approaching something like Born Ruffians’ sound. What’s most apparent on their debut is the middle bit. It’s 40 minutes of joy, with few breaks. When Lalonde sings, on the opening “Red, Yellow and Blue”, that on the flag for his own country he’d include “Blue, because I’d still have sad days”, you never quite believe it.
At their best, Born Ruffians subtly mess with the traditional forms and time signatures of straight-out pop to create something slightly wonky and memorable. “Foxes Mate for Life” includes an abbreviated half-bar at the end of the riff that gives the song a staggering-on-its-feet feeling. “Barnacle Goose” effectively showcases the band’s casual panache. In the middle of the Animal Collective shouting there’s an unexpected switch into a swung instrumental break, until the rising “Ah-ah” chorus returns in what may be the closest the album gets to a straight-out anthem. “I Need a Life” transitions seamlessly from skeletal ballad to careening, catchy pop. Lalonde sings, “The sun is shining but we stay inside”. And the rabble of voices rebuts with the refrain, “Oh but we go out at night”. It’s a simple, almost facile melody, but so effective.
Born Ruffians have expanded their songwriting ambitions on Red, Yellow and Blue, but not by as much as we might have hoped for. Though most of the songs clock in at a respectable three minutes-plus, many are buoyed by extended groove-establishing introductions rather than drastically increased complexity. And if a few songs slip by in a pleasant, jangly-guitar haze, it’s likely because the band hedges just a little. “Broonkaoonkey”, one of the less successful numbers, fails because it’s not quite as unhinged or inventive as “For Reverend Green” (whose jumping vocal line it echoes), or as mainstream-catchy as “Insistor”.
Throughout Red, Yellow and Blue the timbre is really spare, but Born Ruffians show that you don’t need much else to create a compelling record. That it’s a debut makes it all the more worthy of admiration. You’ll be hearing more of this band, hopefully.