Not many indie rock albums sport a song title as ridiculous as “Retard Canard”, and even fewer have a song like “Sole Brother” that rips a guitar melody from Big Band standard “In the Mood”. But these fellas were and are Born Ruffians, and, on their frequently fascinating new album, the sonic mischief runs rampant.
The first thing you’ll notice about Say It, the second full-length from these Canadian misfits, is that it’s immediate. After an initial tornado of whammy bar crunch on “Oh Man”, the band settles into an infectious, stripped-down funk/punk strut, and the upfront energy pretty much never ceases during the whole 38 minutes, even when the tempos slow. Luke LaLonde’s guitars are generally perky and clean, tonal cousins to Vampire Weekend’s “A-Punk” without the overt African influence. Bassist Mitch DeRosier and drummer Steven Hamelin form an essential skeleton, laying down simple, muscular grooves that anchor the songs without weighing them down.
There’s a catch: LaLonde’s vocals are a polarizing acquired taste, heaving and quivering in an operatic drawl that, on a few tracks, comes across like some kind of parody (his outpour on “Come Back” is borderline annoying). He’s a question mark, a wild card, but he’s also quite entertaining, and when his musings fit the mood, there’s pretty much no one else like him.
He’s absolutely thrilling on “Nova Leigh”, where he stretches his voice to a heartbreakingly soulful falsetto and explores “the space on (his) mind’s big bookshelf”. There’s plenty of space in the arrangement, too, as Born Ruffians demonstrate their proficiency for dynamics, building layers of instrumental interjections and rhythmic fluctuations that eventually explode into a terse, glorious shot of Southern Comfort. Remember the first Kings of Leon album? Picture that, but make it way more colorful and interesting.
Born Ruffians have passion and flair to burn, and the best songs on Say It are also the weirdest, funkiest, and most exploratory. On “Higher & Higher”, the guitars, bass, and drum kit play off one another, trading portions of a single melodic phrase, in a way that the players and instruments have formed an interconnected groove engine.
“What to Say” is a clear highlight, where LaLonde passionately croons about getting drunk, talking in his sleep over nimble bass and drums. This is heady, romantic stuff – listen to the nervous clatter in LaLonde’s voice in the chorus: “I don’t know what to say when I’m talkin’ to you”. It’s so smooth, you might be speechless, too.
LaLonde’s finest moments (the gorgeous falsetto fills, visceral “woohoo!” chants) hit you at a gut level, but he’s also a cut above your average indie rock frontman lyrically. His words are mostly streaks of impressionistic color and the strongest images can make you laugh or press rewind to see if you heard him correctly. Gems like “I cut my vocal cords with a razorblade / When I try to scream” or “You never ask a sister to help / With the chores that are physically straining” offer proof aplenty.
Some bands deliver a masterpiece straight out of the gate. Not Born Ruffians. But with Say It, they’re getting warmer.