Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Record Review: Born Ruffians

Born Ruffians
Red, Yellow & Blue
[2008, Warp Records]

I wrote this for Music in Review online, but can't supply a direct link. So, here's the review. My third favorite album of 2008.

After a few measures of stark fingerpicking and a muttered vocal melody, Luke Lalonde muses about starting his own country, and what its flag’s color choices would symbolize. This sort of optimistic naïveté establishes a precedent that the band follows for the next thirty-nine minutes. They chronicle their frustrations, aspirations, and ever-prevalent longing in a nearly flawless set of succinct, intricate songs.

The group employs the classic pop idiom of playing upbeat music that belies lyrical angst. Despite their restricted cache of instruments (drums, bass and a guitar), Born Ruffians create frenetic, engrossing music. Steven Hamelin provides furious, non-traditional drum work (check “Hummingbird” or “Kurt Vonnegut”), and Mitch Derosier brings melodic bass lines. Most remarkable though, is Luke Lalonde’s voice. His unhinged, yelpy vocal style sounds not unlike a younger Avey Tare with an even more expressive range. He wails and yells (“Badonkadonkey”), but is more than capable of settling down for a low-key campfire sing-a-long (“Little Garçon”).

The songwriting is candid, vulnerable, and unpretentious. On “Barnacle Goose” and “I Need a Life”, he sings of dissatisfaction with who he’s become, lost in an existential malaise. On “Foxes Mate for Life” and “Hedonistic Me”, the singer seems earnest in his devotion to a significant other, yet seems to be primarily driven by lust and chemistry in “In a Mirror”. Though there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking covered here, it’s all conveyed in a way that’s near-universally relatable. Who hasn’t been dissatisfied with who they are, and who hasn’t felt conflicted and confused between love and lust? Though the subjects seem somber in print, there’s an underlying resilience and conviction in this band, seen most clearly in the group shouted “We’re not gonna die like this!” on “Hummingbird”.

Rusty Santos’ restrained production is immediately noticeable. Unlike other records he’s produced (among them the seminal Sung Tongs and Person Pitch), Red, Yellow & Blue seems almost bereft of effects -- even the nowadays ubiquitous reverb. The songs all sound as if they were recorded in a tiny room, a room that you inhabit along with the band. Guitars and vocals are trebly and right against your ears, and the bass isn’t very pronounced. At first the feeling was almost uncomfortable, but the more I listened, I grew to love the unique qualities of the recording, whose quirks reflect those of the band members. Most importantly, the absence of effects for the majority of the record greatly accentuates the moments when they’re included. On “I Need a Life”, solemn piano chords resonate in the build to the song’s cathartic release, and the subtle use of vocal reverb on “Hedonistic Me” and “Barnacle Goose” is a small but crucial touch.

Red, Yellow & Blue is simply one of the most fun records of 2008. Though it was well received upon release in early 2008, it’s been criminally overlooked on nearly every year-end list from major publications. And this is just nonsense. It’s an album that’s immediately accessible yet bears startling depth upon examination, and flows perfectly from start to finish.

Buy it