The fifth studio album from Canadian indie rock band Born Ruffians opens with “Forget Me”, a mature and melancholic instant classic about the beauty of death and how we’re all on the same path together. Guitarist and vocalist Luke Lalonde wrote the song on the day David Bowie passed away. “It was definitely a sad day, but the way David Bowie died I thought was just quite beautiful… like everything else he did, very inspiring and very beautiful,” Luke explains. He hadn’t had the time throughout the day to process the loss of his idol, but ventured to the band’s studio space that evening to listen to Bowie records and cry. His guitar was there and the song came to him in a moment of inspiration. Speaking on the phone from his home in Toronto, he tells me, “I think it was kinda the culmination of a lot of different things. My dad had gone through cancer treatment the year leading up to that as well, and he’s doing fine, he’s doing well now. But he was diagnosed with lung cancer and had gone through chemo and radiation. I hadn’t necessarily dealt with that head on, or I certainly hadn’t written about it or channeled it through any songwriting.”
From the get go of “Miss You”, the album’s third single, it becomes clear that the instrumentation, along with Richard Swift’s lo-fi vintage production style, will be constant throughout the remainder of the songs. The guitars and drums hint at modern college rock and pop influences and yet this forlorn yet upbeat call-and-response song feels almost timeless. It sounds as though Lalonde is crying out in pain but trying to put a positive spin on the situation. “Side Tracked” starts with some trippy, psychedelic guitar effects before flowing naturally into unison bass and guitar lines. It’s a seemingly simple, easy-going song which lacks some bite, that is, until the vocals in the chorus descend with contrapuntal bass heading in the opposite direction. “Fade To Black” is a timely, rollicking, clap-along rock track with a catchy vocal melody and youthful energy reminiscent of The Beach Boys. The drums, bass and backing vocals at times call to mind early Vampire Weekend. A 1980s Juno synth overdubbed by Swift strikes as different and inspired, sharply pulling into focus the fact that, despite all appearances, this is not an album from the 1960s. “Fade To Black” is quite simply a great track, with all personnel playing their role in fine form.
“Love Too Soon” continues in the same key as its predecessor, suggesting it could possibly be interpreted as “Fade To Black” Part 2. It’s a sparse, reverb-soaked ballad with guitar, whistling and organ which would not feel out of place in the soundtrack to an American indie coming-of-age film. It’s fine, but it feels somewhat underwhelming, as though the band is going through the motions, given the frenetic pace of the previous track. A subtle chorus effect in the broken guitar chords in “Spread So Thin” gives the track a distinct, early 90s pop rock character, calling to mind hits of that era such as “Stars” by Simply Red or “Friday I’m In Love” by The Cure. Lalonde’s rising vocal melody in the chorus recalls a similar pattern employed in “Forget Me”. In the final chorus, the drums crescendo, only to cleverly relinquish the tension with no satisfying resolution at the end.
“Tricky” reinforces the album’s live feel at the start, with outtake-style talking over what sounds like a distorted drum machine before the song kicks in. “You’re so tricky and complicated… when are you gonna come home?”, taunts a contrary Lalonde in the track, which takes on a feeling vaguely reminiscent of The Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy”. The three chord bridge sounds undeniably similar in style to Vampire Weekend. A heavily distorted guitar solos seemingly in the wrong key, in the album’s most experimental moment so far. “Ring That Bell” is not the first carefree song on the album, but it is certainly among its most adventurous in terms of songwriting. A slow groove, with organ and bass playing two notes in an almost Zorba-like style contrasts with the song’s upbeat chorus. “Working Together” has a false start, again, reinforcing the album’s live feel. The chord progression is Dylan-esque in its simplicity and predictability. However, it lends itself very well to the free love, John & Yoko style singalong chorus “We’re working together, love comes to whoever wants it, all good things are free, wave to nobody”. It’s borderline naff, but it works, and serves admirably as the album closer.
Understandably tinged with a spectrum of emotions, packed full of introspection and with sentiment ranging from jovial to philosophical, Uncle, Duke & The Chief may well be the most refined Born Ruffians album to date. Producer Richard Swift has done an excellent job seeing the band’s vision for these songs through to fruition. Although some tracks fall short, it certainly has its rewarding moments and is worthy of repeat listens.
Uncle, Duke & The Chief is released Friday 16th February via Paper Bag Records.