If you follow indie music and haven’t heard of Born Ruffians yet, it is probable that you have only shyly skimmed the genre’s surface. Consider this a friendly nudge to boldly dive right in, because listening to Born Ruffians is like slipping into snug pyjamas that just came out of the dryer.
Native to Toronto, Born Ruffians were finally recognized by the industry majority when they were recently nominated for Breakthrough Group of the Year at the 2014 Juno Awards. Perhaps as a response, the loutish scoundrels recently released a deluxe edition of their 2013 album, Birthmarks, which will feature new artwork and a second CD with four brand new tracks and five acoustic reworkings of past Born Ruffians songs.
Reissues of old material are grounds for most to be skeptical, but let me assure you this edition of Birthmarks is a completely worthy complement to an already great album. For those who haven’t had a chance to listen to Birthmarks, I will run a brief review in the first part for the original album, and then a separate review for the “Deluxe” CD.
Disc One – Birthmarks
Many long-term Born Ruffians fans I have spoken to felt that 2010’s Say It was somehow underwhelming, as if it was crafted to be more digestible to newer fans. The person who introduced me to the band back in 2008 even went as far to say that “every single new Born Ruffians video is just Luke Lalonde running around and profoundly staring into space whilst on a date with different hipster girls”. This is a thinly-veiled complaint about the downsides of appealing to the masses, with too much of a focus on clean poppiness and lyrics regarding having feelings about girls.
Personally, I agree that Say It lacked a certain feeling of boyish anarchy that was the forefront of songs like “This Sentence Will Ruin/Save Your Life” or “Barnacle Goose”. There was a certain quality that barred the album from being as engraved in my mind as its predecessors.
On that note, Birthmarks did not repeat the fault of its antecedent. When I take my nostalgia glasses off, Born Ruffians’ Birthmarks is a mature rival to their 2008 standout Red, Yellow & Blue. All the songs stayed true to their formula of bittersweet, poetic subject matter, delivered in a rebellious, happy upbeat atmosphere.
The only tracks I felt were weak were “Golden Promises” and “So Slow”. “So Slow” in particular is so suspiciously out place that my conspiracy-sense takes physical effort to restrain myself (from typing libelous theories about legal contracts to music labels that appeal to the wallets of the simpletons who kept Fun.’s “We Are Young” playing well into 2013).
That aside, I really enjoyed the lyrical depth on this album. It has matured from being emotion driven, pulpy fun to actually being poetic at times. This hidden veil makes literary-minded folks like me clench in joy when I suddenly understand a particular metaphor that had went over head the first 50 times I heard it.
Disc Two – Deluxe Edition
Lengthening nine tracks, Birthmarks Deluxe is a separate new album entirely, appropriately packaged on a second CD. The prevailing mood of Disc Two seems to be melancholy, mostly attributed to the acoustic reimaginings of “Needle”, “Never Age”, and “Rage Flows”. Even the new tracks “Cherry Wine”, “With An Ax”, and “Harmony” contain this atmosphere of spite and malice usually reserved for scorned lovers.
We see further evidence of this in “Wandering Eye” and “Your Sufferin’ Heart”, which are rewritten versions of “Permanent Hesitation” and “Ocean’s Deep” respectively. Both tracks take the best lyrical centres of their original versions and create truly beautiful tracks, ones that will definitely find where the listener keeps his emotional baggage and bring it to the forefront of their mind. This raw emotion does not exist on the original album. Indeed, were such emotions to appear on Birthmarks, they would be misrepresented as ironic next to the upbeat major-chord melodies.
This brings me to “Oh Cecilia”. This song is undeniably funky and creates a Pavlovian craving for sweaty headbands, marijuana and disco balls, even though I usually dislike for all three of those. “Oh Cecilia” is excellent, but out of place with the general broody vibe of every other track on the album.
I am a sucker for pseudo-poetic dejection songs; so naturally, I really liked the acoustic versions. This theme culminates on the last track “Your Sufferin’ Heart”, which is really just a superior, sombre reimagining of “Ocean’s Deep”. This actually makes the entire album for me, and is the tipping point between whether to categorize Disc Two as “non-canon” material or part of the whole. On this, I openly state my opinion: the 2013 vanilla edition of Birthmarks is thematically incomplete without the Deluxe melancholy of Disc Two.
Buy it for the happy bubblegum peppiness of Disc One, buy it for the drinking-in-your-room gloominess of Disc Two, or buy it to blast “Oh Cecillia” for twelve hours the next time you are paying tribute to the ’70s via LSD tablets. I need to stop here before I begin obsessively deconstructing the thematic contrast of both discs and forging cliché conspiracies about Birthmarks Deluxe being a concept album with an inverted line of chronology! If you experience the album backwards, it is clearly a coming-of-age story about the pain of having your heart broken and permanently becoming insincere in your trust for others, though time eventually numbs the pain, and eventually you become the monster in somebody else’s story…
Buy this bloody album!
Check out Born Ruffians!
Author: Alex Slakva