Immersing themselves in the process, Born Ruffians aim for a more cohesive vision on their third full-length.
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. Being in a band often serves as a first flash of freedom for younger musicians, and can conversely be a salve from the pressures of adulthood for those who have been around the block for a while. And though the constant companionship and tight travel quarters often make enemies out of lifelong friends, for at least a little while, being in a band serves as one of the rare occasions where work and pleasure live together simultaneously. Overall, it seems to generally be a pretty sweet gig.
This bonhomie seems to be what the members of Born Ruffians had in mind as they gathered together for several months’ worth of recording sessions, ending in Birthmarks. Not only would the four gentlemen (the fourth being producer Roger Leavens, whose Boombox Studios also played a crucial role in the album’s conception) be meeting each day to hash out songs for their next album, but they would in fact, be living together as they set up shop in an old, haunted farmhouse out in the boonies of their native Ontario. There was apparently some discontent with the workmanlike and routine recording schedule that accompanied the evolution of their 2010 albumSay It and the band’s hope was that going all In the Wild would bring back the spark and fire that helped buoy their career in the first place. Sort of a “back to basics” ethos taken to the extreme or Method Acting for rock bands, the idea being that the music would benefit from the members continuously being around each other, their instruments, and their notepads.
And for the most part, the music on resulting album, Birthmarks, does benefit, as the album’s dozen tracks crackle and pulsate with a spirited and energetic focus reflective of the time and attention required and set forth. Luke LaLonde’s yelpy and often-reverbed soaked vocals soar and croon with varying degrees of optimism, anxiousness, and swagger. One moment he’s grasping to catch hold of a purpose and identity in life, the next he’s recognizing its fleeting nature. Elsewhere, he’s throwing his game at admired temptresses, pining for those already spoken for, and railing against the porchlight sadness that lies in the wake of busted dreams. Bassist Mitch DeRosier and keyboardist Andy Lloyd keep LaLonde’s musings interesting as they shroud the songs in sleek, danceable pop melodies and sharply tinged hooks that pull the beat together into focus. There’s little to complain about from a production perspective either as each track sounds fresh and inviting coming full throttle out of the speakers.
Some complaints can be voiced, however, over the music’s tendency to meander and wander from its charted course. The band works best when they stick to the two-to-three minute timeframe. They sound better as more of a tightly outfitted pop vehicle and less as experimental purveyors. A track like “Cold Pop” serves as a good example of how the formula can veer from an excitingly minimal jangle to a bit of an overwrought and shapeless soundscape with the addition of a few extra bars. “6-5000”, “Too Soaked to Break”, and “Dancing on the Edge of Our Graves” similarly suffer as the strong opening beats take on a rambling life of their own and bury the momentum previously built. There’s also the liberal lifting of styles previously employed and utilized by other acts. The album opens with Fleet Foxes-inspired rustic harmonies, follows that with some Walkmen-esque chorus effects, before later on in the album riffing on Vampire Weekend whimsy, and Handsome Furs frenzy. There’s nothing wrong with appropriating these effective stylings, but seeing how Born Ruffians are probably angling for these bands’ demographics, a little more of a definitive break from the formula would probably have been a good idea.
Born Ruffians have essentially made Birthmarks on their own terms. By taking their time and reveling in each other’s company, the vision they had initially set out to capture seems to have been achieved. Far from a landmark statement, the album still has a lot of impressive moments and is an enjoyable spin. They’re also still a young band who deserve to keep plying, modifying, and exploring their sound as they continue to plow ahead through the musical landscape.