Born Ruffians perform as if they’re singing in the shower. The Canadian quartet loves a good heartfelt wail, vocal trill, and three-note guitar melody, adding up to a stack of songs best sung in a warm mist with no one around to hear you. That secret joy of singing in the morning comes from frontman Luke Lalonde’s yelping, kitschy words here. It’s the band’s best trait, clearly less of a choice and more of a habit. Not long after their first release as Born Ruffians, 2006’s self-titled EP, Born Ruffians put out a cover of Grizzly Bear’s “Knife”, in which the notorious mournful howl of Grizzly Bear took shape as an ambivalent recollection. Lalonde wasn’t singing with somber calls. It was the chipper, carefree, slightly distant delivery of someone whose joy pushes words out of them without a true agenda, even when singing about bitter backstabbing. Their fourth full-length, RUFF, carries a similar happiness that’s now beginning to get a bit bleak.
It’s been more than 10 years since the group formed, but they have yet to truly push themselves past the bubble of comfortable, safe, cutesy indie rock. They do melodies and they do them well. Opening track “Don’t Live Up” plucks out a coy guitar line that soon turns to horn-like flares, the sonic equivalent of a child’s underwater snorkel dance moves. It’s a gurgle of giddiness. “Yawn Tears” elevates that higher. A chorus of shattering cymbals and sharp guitar gives Lalonde’s burst of wordless vocals a tangible energy, placing them somewhere between Local Natives and GROUPLOVE. These are tracks worth revisiting when you wake up with a hunch that it’s going to be a good day. In that, RUFF is enjoyable. It’s a pleasant stream of non-offensive tracks that an innovative tech startup would play at their 5 p.m. party, a kindergarten teacher may play while cooking breakfast, or a Starbucks customer takes note of but doesn’t whip out their phone to Shazam. They have their place in the world.
What much of RUFF fails to do is differentiate itself. Born Ruffians cling onto their youth like pros, but they fail to update their direction as they age. “& On & On & On” plods along like a track that fun. rejected. “(Eat Shit) We Did It” lacks any lyrical personality to merit its sonic travels through upbeat verses and a well-produced chorus. Even the emotional weight of the record, “Fuck Feelings”, blames emotions as a whole instead of directing bitterness towards someone or something that actually caused the wreckage. That fault carries throughout: There’s no real target in their songs. On quick listen, these tracks posses the right instrumentation, but attentive listens unveil the lack of relatable or even identifiable motive. As our own Chris Coplan pegged back in his review of 2010’s Say It, Born Ruffians need to grow if they hope to stand on the same level as their fellow Canadian giants.
Born Ruffians do take a few risks that keep the pop songs strung together, like the minute-long “Don’t Worry Now”, a beautiful, dream-like filler that does its job well. But when Lalonde sings, “It’s nice to think the world falls apart/ When I go to sleep,” on “When Things Get Pointless I Roll Away” it raises the question: Why doesn’t he write about imagined destruction or magical possibilities? Had he grabbed a hold of his imagination and run with it like the song’s shimmering ambient end does, RUFF could be an artful creation. Lalonde’s voice is still unique, but Born Ruffians need more than that to do well. If they want to pursue content, chipper, marshmallow song structures, then that’s fine, but it’s nearly impossible not to think they do hope, deep down, to make something more than that. If so, RUFF doesn’t lead them any closer.
Essential tracks: “Don’t Live Up”, “Yawn Tears”